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Situational Reading

2 Mar


The other day I heard a psychologist say that if  you don’t doze off within the first half an hour after going to bed, don’t lie awake struggling to fall asleep. Instead   get out of bed and read until you feel tired. My sister tried this, but would then stay up half the night reading. Her doctor advised her to stay in bed, keep the lights off and not be so impatient.  I suppose, that if you do read,  the trick  is to find a book that is not very engaging– something where  you don’t really care what’s going to happen next. Fon   Boardman Jr. from the Columbia University Press, polled librarians, editors, authors, reviewers, and  teachers and  their  consensus was that the world’s most boring author was George Eliot, so you might want to try reading Silas Marner.  It  certainly put me to sleep during sophomore English. One of my classmates referred to it as “Silly-Ass” Marner.    

            But without Mr. Boardman’s help,  how could you find such a book? Most libraries classify their holdings using either the  Dewey Decimal System or its  rival the Library of Congress Classification. Both systems   organize knowledge into  major classes and subdivides them into  divisions and  sections.  The Dewey System  is purely numerical and assigns a decimal number to each book and  can easily accommodate  an infinite number of works.     The Library of Congress  System   is an alpha-numeric mix with letters signifying the main divisions and double letters indicating subcategories. I can still remember that BF is the designation for psychology, but only because B.F. were the initials of arguably the most famous of American psychologists,  Burrhus Frederick (B.F.) Skinner. 

            Because they are based on categories of human knowledge, neither of these systems, can help you locate written works that are appropriate  for specific circumstances  like trying to fall asleep. In addition  to falling asleep there are   also a variety of other situations and venues which might call for customized reading materials. 

            To remedy this problem, I’d like to proposed a new classification system  based  on the demands of the setting–  the “Situation, Time,  And Whatever, Analytic Reading System or   the STAWAR system.

            Instead of subject matter; such as science, literature, or philosophy;  the STAWAR  system  employs other important attributes of reading material  such as how boring or engaging the material is,  its physical features (weight, size, appearance) and dimensions  such  as  granularity.  A blogger, named Pont,   defined   granularity as the “size of the semantic chunks of a work”. For example A dictionary or trivia book would have high granularity, a short story collection medium,  and a  Victor Hugo novel   very little.

            Below are a few proposed category descriptions  from  the STAWAR system: 

AP (Airplane): Airplane reading material should be lightweight and easily tucked into a pocket or carry on bag. Since the seats are narrow, newspapers are not recommended unless you are angling to become intimate with your seat mates.  Indigenous reading materials such as  the In-Flight Magazine,  weird catalogue,  safety card, and barf   cannot be  relied upon for  entertainment. This  material should be moderately engaging as  to distract your attention from strange engine noises and peanut crunching fellow passengers. Granularity should be based on the length of the flight or numbers of layovers. Excluded from this class are FAA safety reports and any stories regarding crash landings in the Andes or  incipient cannibalism.       

BB (Barber/Beauty Shop): In these settings there is often a gender divide in  reading materials between  sports magazines and newspapers  vs.  beauty and fashion  publications. If you bring your own reading material  to the barbershop,  it should not  be too pretentious or you run the risk of social humiliation. In college I made the mistake of bringing a textbook from a class on the psychology of learning to the barber shop. It was entitled “Principles of Reinforcement”. The fellow sitting next to me noticed what I was reading.   I suddenly realized my mistake  and prepared for the inevitable  teasing. I was granted a  reprieve when he looked at the title and just said, “Oh you’re studying construction.” Thankfully construction work was sufficiently testosterone drenched in a way that psychology couldn’t be.   

BE  (Beach):  Beach reading is usually light guilty pleasures.  The books themselves   should usually be   inexpensive since they will be exposed to  water,  sand, and suntan lotion. Low  reflectivity is a plus. Occasionally larger volumes can be usefully employed. Although lugging them onto the beach can be a chore, they are serviceable as a makeshift pillow if you wrap a towel around them. 

CA (Car):   Talking on cell phones or texting while driving as been found to be quite distracting and dangerous. Reading, while driving, certainly must be just as bad  if not worse.  I once knew a woman who read while driving. She always kept a paperback on the front seat of her car, but to her credit she only read when the car was stopped at traffic lights or train crossings. I’m not aware that she ever had an accident, but other drivers were constantly honking their horns at her, as she would try to finish a paragraph before  taking off.  She said she preferred books with short chapters. 

            Reading in  vehicles can be a  difficult task even for passengers. Our kids always read in the car,  but  my wife Diane gets car sick.  I believe that books with large type are best for car reading and can help reduce potential nausea, unless they are by Danielle Steel.

CH (Church):  Except for church bulletins, hymnals, Bibles, and  collection envelope doodles, reading in church, like cell phone use  is   seen as socially inappropriate  by most Americans.   For iconoclasts, who still insist on reading in church,  the materials should either    resemble  or be  easily inserted into an indigenous publications. Content should be serious enough so that facial expressions are not revealing. Laugh-out-loud  and  irreverent materials  should be scrupulously avoided during the sermon.

              Finally specialized reading materials could be identified for a variety of other  venues such as doctors’ offices, courts, work,  classrooms, and laundromats. In retrospect, I am afraid to speculate in what setting  this piece  might best be read.


The Three Labours of Stawar

3 Jan


        Amidst my constant brooding about money matters, I recently came up with the scheme for refinancing our house, to take advantage of the rock bottom interest rates. I surprised myself, since generally I just talk about such things. Actually doing them makes me feel like a take-charge kind of guy but also incredibly anxious. I filled out the mortgage application papers like I was in a trance and had to face the trauma of looking at credit scores and listing all my bills. There was, however, one thing, I hadn’t counted on and that is the mortgage company insisted on having the house appraised. The thought of someone poking around our house, taking note of all my neglect, was enough to make me reconsider the whole thing.

             My wife Diane said she would go along with the refinancing, but she established two conditions. First, I had to be the one who was at home when the appraiser came to our house. I admit that I usually foist such embarrassing jobs off on her. When electricians, plumbers, or other repairmen come to our house, I conveniently have a very important meeting at work that I just can’t cancel. She has to face their embarrassing questions as they look over various aspects of my shoddy workmanship. If I see a repair truck in the driveway on my way home from work, I usually decide that maybe we need some milk from the store. Shepherding the appraiser through our house would be sort of a token payback for all the times Diane was stuck with that dirty job. Diane’s second condition was her insistence that I, for decency’s sake, clean up the basement and make some minor house repairs that I had been putting off for years. She had only asked me last week when was I going to straighten up my work bench. I was intimidated and reluctant, but that fixed 4% called to me in a siren’s voice. Diane had just sprained her foot so it was also made clear that these jobs were mine alone.

             The task before me began to assume mythic proportions in my mind. I remembered how the Greek gods require Hercules to complete a series of nearly impossible tasks to atone for his past misdeeds. But Hercules only had to slay some monsters, clean stables, and steal a couple of apples. Compared to my jobs, Hercules’s labors were a piece of cake.

Labor 1: The Cleansing of the Basement Hercules’s most humiliating assignment was to clean the Augean stables in a single day. King Augeas was known for his famous stables, which were the largest in the world. The livestock, housed there, were supernaturally robust and produced an enormous quantity of waste. Furthermore, the stables had not been cleaned in many years. However, if you ever saw our basement, I’m sure you would agree that the Augean stables had nothing over the Stawaran basement, which due to my procrastinating had not been thoroughly cleaned in nearly a decade. Hercules accomplished his task by cheating. He rerouted the course of two rivers so that they flushed out the stables. It would have probably been easier to redirect the Ohio, but I used plain old elbow grease. Although technically I wasn’t required to slay any giant monsters, cleaning the basement did involve tackling several horrendous spiders and something that may have been a slime creature. The job took two full days, dozens of trash bags, and a lungful of dust and debris. There was also some psychological cost to the task, since it involved sorting through our youngest son’s old toys. He is the baby of the family and although he’s been away from home for almost six years, his absence is still hard to accept. All those Legos and Star War toys evoked a flood of bittersweet feelings that didn’t make the task any easier.

Labor 2: The Spackling of the Bathroom My second task was to repair a hole in the ceiling of the guest bathroom. I forget how long ago the hole was made by a plumber looking for a leaky pipe. The leak had long since subsided, but the hole remained. Most of our guests have had the good manners not to inquire about this hole, but lacking any such social inhibitions, visiting children always point it out. Even babies having their diaper’s changed in this bathroom have gestured upwards towards the ceiling in an accusing manner. I managed to cut a piece of drywall and nail it to the ceiling and fill in around it with spackling compound. Since the ceiling had an “orange peel” plaster finish, the smooth drywall piece didn’t blend in very well, even after I painted it. About a day before the scheduled appraisal, I decided to get a large spray can of plaster texture to try to apply a surface, similar to the ceiling, on the drywall. A friend at work told me I didn’t have to put up masking tape since any spillover would easily wipe off. Just to be safe I taped a few sheets of newspaper to the walls anyway. I shook the can vigorously to mix the texture. When I pushed the button, it was like a plaster bomb detonated. I must have swallowed about a pound of plaster and the overspray covered everything in the room including the sink, walls, the chair I was standing on, and the shower curtain. About the only thing that did not get a coat of plaster was the piece of drywall, I was aiming at. It took me hours to clean up the mess.

Labor 3. Weedwacking the Pathway We have a small outbuilding about 100 yards from our house. Since I wanted the house to appraise for as much as possible, I wanted to make sure the appraiser could see it. Over the summer the pathway to the building had become overgrown, so my final labor was to clear it. For over twenty minutes I tried to get the line trimmer going, by pulling the starter cord. I finally discovered I had dialed the wrong settings, which would have prevented it from ever starting. By the time I got the thing started I was already exhausted. The pathway had many painful thorny branches blocking it, but the trimmer was able to mow them down. In a green cloud of flying thorns and poison ivy, I cut a pathway to the building, completing my final labor.

               The appraiser went over the house with a fine tooth comb. Just my luck that since the mortgage crisis, banks are very wary of inflated appraisals. I survived the ordeal and am waiting for the results. If the appraisal isn’t high enough, my next scheme may involve fetching a Golden Fleece.

Orginally published in the New Albany Tribune/Jeffersonville  Evening News

Afraid of speaking in public? Take Dr. Stawar’s Biz Quiz ( Page 31)

28 May


The Strange Case of the Wayward Beef Roast

26 May

I’m walking down the street taking my usual morning constitutional and there it is, laying on the sidewalk in front of me. Weighing in at approximately 5 pounds, it is a fully cooked beef roast– the kind with thick white string holding it together. Now I’ve seen odd things while walking– plenty of wrappers, papers cups, even shoes, socks, clothing, and magazines. Only last week I stepped on a jagged piece of beer bottle and just avoided lacerating my foot. I’ve seen plenty of fried chicken bones and partially eaten burgers obviously thrown from speeding cars, but never a complete beef roast?
I look around for clues. No roasting pan or Dutch oven. How could it get there? No carrots, onions, or potatoes? No traces of gravy. Emboldened I lean over the roast sniff it and touch it. It’s in good condition, but cold to the touch. If I had I a meat thermometer I could take it’s internal temperature. It must have been here for some time. Perhaps it been laying there since dinner time, yesterday.
Suddenly something odd strikes me. There are no ants swarming on the roast and no evidence of being disturbed by dogs or other animals. I wonder if the roast is toxic? Perhaps it hasn’t been here all night after all, maybe someone just recently deposited it here. The perpetrator could still be around. I quickly spin around– no one suspicious, only a jogger. I look him over and I can’t detect a hot pad, saran wrap, or any other telltale signs Then it occurs to me– the roast must been moved after its was already cold. What sort of fiend would do such a thing.
I debated whether I should provide the roast with a proper Christian disposal or just leave as carrion for the animals. With my finger I make a greasy outline around the beef roast and then kick it into a nearby sewer.
All the way home the curious problem of the beef roast weighs on my mind. How did it get there? Who left it? Is someone looking for it? Will someone be horribly shocked when they open their refrigerator door today?
I discuss the matter with Diane, my wife and we devise the following possible scenarios to explain the beef roast’s peculiar presence.
1. Domestic Dispute: This is mainly Diane’s idea. The roast came to be there due to some sort of domestic conflict involving the flinging of a beef roast, most likely at an incorrigible husband. This begs the question of how it made out to street, unless the dispute occurred in a vehicle and the roast beef projectile missed its intended victim and went out the window, bouncing onto the sidewalk.
Of course, you must also explain why the fully cooked beef roast was in the car in the first place, so as to be a weapon of opportunity. This objection is easily dismissed if the couple were taking the roast to a sick relative’s house or covered dish dinner. The only other problem with this story is the fact that the roast was in excellent condition. Unless they were going to a dinner in the early morning hours or the roast was frozen solid, it appears to have survived the whole night remarkably well. Even with this inconsistency, I must admit I lean towards this explanation since it was well known in my family that my father once, in a drunken rage, threw our family’s New Year’s roast turkey out the back door into the street, where it was consumed by hungry neighborhood cats.
2. Animal Invasion: An alternative scenario is that somehow an animal, like a large dog, managed to snag the beef roast and run out of the house, perhaps taking it directly from the refrigerator. This is sort of like that scene in Jean Shepherd’s movie, The Christmas Story, when the hillbilly neighbor’s hound dogs make off with the long suffering father’s Christmas Turkey. Although this scenario makes sense, you must also explain why the beef roast was not consumed by the dog. We can speculate that the vexed owner of the beef roast angrily pursued the dog, who eventually dropped the roast, running for its life. Still I would think the owner of the beef roast would have returned and retrieved it, if only so that the dog could not come back later and enjoy it’s guilty pleasure.
3. The Famished Burglar: A third alternative possibility is that the beef roast was taken by a burglar, who in course of robbing a nearby house, also looked in the refrigerator and decided to take the roast along with other valuables. The bizarre appropriation of the victim’s food y is not unknown in criminal psychology. I can imagine the beef roast fell out of the burglar’s booty bag as he ran down the street, or perhaps it was thrown out the getaway car by the burglar’s more practical partner. This would explain the early morning presence of the beef roast on the sidewalk.
I’m sure there are many other possibilities, which I will leave to your imagination since I’ve obviously thought entirely too much about this whole thing. But I do wonder what’s the chances I’ll see a leg of lamb tomorrow.

Originally published in the Tribune & Evening News (

Why I Am Not Handy Around the House

4 Feb

I have always wondered why I am not very good with tools. When it comes to tasks around the house, I am definitely mechanically challenged. Worse yet, I cannot bring myself to hire professionals who know what they are doing, until the situation becomes critical. Reflexively I have bizarre unrealistic expectations regarding the expense, knowing that this is the act what will finally drive us to the poor house. All this neurotic thinking drives my wife crazy.
I would like to blame my father, at least in part. Like many people who grew up during the depression, he believed that you should be totally self-reliant. Only the Vanderbilts and Astors actually hired people to work for them. Dad was also the one who always talked about being driven to the poor house. I was always scared to death of going to the poor house, although I don’t think I ever actually saw one. Hiring craftsmen was a foolish waste of money, perhaps even un-American, and a sure rod to the nebulous poor house.. My father was a good electrician, and he thought he could do any sort of skilled work. He couldn’t and neither can I, although that strong expectation is still present.
I never had the same relationship with tools as my father. He would get furious when he found his best screwdriver rusting away in the pile of dirt where I left it. It was probably the same feeling I get when I see my son using one of my books as a coaster.
I’ve analyzed the situation and have identified four main factors that account for most of my ineptitude in home repair.
1. Lack of Adequate Tools. Yes, it is a poor workman who blames his tools. But since I am a poor workman, I’m entitled to this excuse. I never have the appropriate tool. But since I always purchase the cheapest tools possible, (imported ones on sale at the discount store) even if I have the right tool, often it is of such poor quality that it doesn’t function properly. A related problem, of course, is just finding my tools in the first place. If they aren’t laying in their usual location, in a heap on the garage floor, I’m in trouble. “Now where is that wrench, I ‘m sure I left it in a pile of dirt in the backyard on Saturday.”
2. Task Transformation. No matter what the job start starts out to be, it always mutates into some other task I must complete first. If I’m not looking for some tool, I’m trying to replace a crucial part I’ve manage to break or lose. I must spend at least 95% of the time looking for lost screws, sockets, or patience. Just replacing a switch cover can turn into an endless quest to the hardware store, beginning with trying to find my lost car keys, wallet, and watch and then stopping for cash, gasoline, and Prozac before I even get to the store.
3. The Hemorrhage Factor. A third major stumbling block is the bloodletting that invariably occurs at some point during the project. I’ve managed to injure myself with wrenches, tire tools, glue guns, and assorted sharp objects. This distraction leads to the obligatory trip to the emergency room for the embarrassing explanation and requisite stitches, tetanus shots or neurosurgery. Even minor injuries take a great deal of time. “Where is that peroxide. I know I left in the backyard last Saturday when I was fixing the fence.”
4. The Humiliation Factor. Perhaps the most important obstacle, this involves trying to avoid telling other people the idiotic things I’ve already done. For example, I hate taking my car into the shop and hearing the mechanic say “Hey who tried to tape this engine together and what’s this coat hanger doing here. You shouldn’t mess with this stuff. You could hurt yourself.” Good advice, but I already hurt myself ( see factor #3).
And I don’t like explaining to the hardware store clerk that I need the spare part because I stripped the threads or dropped the spring down the drain. “Gee I don’t have any idea what happen to it. It was that way when I got there. Maybe one of the kids messed with it.” That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
I suppose I could go to the community college and take some courses in home repair or see a therapist for a few sessions, but that probably cost so much I’d end up in the poor house.

Auto Enmity

11 Jan

I hate cars. Any remainder of my adolescent infatuation has evaporated and and abiding hatred of all things automotive has filled the void . It started at James Monroe Senior High summer school, June 1966. The first day of driver’s education class I’m waiting for my name to be called as the roll is read by assistant football coach, Cedric Kamper. “Smith, Linda… Smither, James… Stark, Denise… Starnes, Roger…” “Good ole Roger Starnes –he’s been in line in front of me for the last 10 years. I’m next and I’m sure this jerk’s going to mispronounced my name and embarrass me.” “Stuh… Stuh…” (“It’s pronounced Stay War. Stay !War! Idiot!” ) “Stuh… Stuh… Strawberry… Strawberry, Terry… Terry Strawberry here?” Everybody busts out laughing. My face turns as red as a strawberry. I wish I was dead. No, I wish he was dead. I should have known then and there that oil and strawberries do not mix.
Mr. Kamper ploughed through the book stuff –power trains, carburetors, tire pressure, and stopping distances –lickety split. We watched a few gruesome flicks about drunk drivers who end up impaled on steering columns with axles rammed up their noses and mysteriously learner permits are bestowed upon us and we’re ready for the open road.
My driving cohort consisted of Mr. Kamper, Wilburt Jasper, Sandy Richards, and me. Wilburt was a thin nervous black boy who was an excellent alto saxophone player and very mediocre basketball player. He wished it was the other way around. Sandy was more academically inclined but her real claim to fame was that she once wrote a letter of complaint to the Continental Baking Company about how Hostess Cupcake wrappers stick to the icing and three weeks later a Hostess truck pulled up to her house and delivered a free case of cupcakes. Mr. Kamper had earned a reputation as a teacher to avoid. His real calling in life was football and he viewed teaching as a necessary evil. He taught basic science and driver’s education and his lesson plans were pretty much the list of movies he intended to show. He also had a mean streak and would cull out vulnerable students to hound unmercifully I was afraid he had my number after the strawberry incident.
The driver’s education car was a big white Chrysler with a large “Student Driver” sign on top. It had an extra brake pedal for Mr. Kamper to stomp on if it was necessary to save our lives. One late June morning Wilburt was chauffeuring us around a state park when Mr. Kamper says, “Let’s see how you do under pressure.” Wilburt winces but is afraid to avert his gaze from the road. Mr. Kamper produces a 4 inch firecracker, balances it on the dashboard, and lights it. Now, I knew it was fake, being somewhat of an fireworks expert. My dad was a volunteer city fireman and every Fourth of July the city cops would roust local teenagers and confiscate their fireworks. They would take the fireworks down to city hall, where other policemen, firemen, and city employees would take them home for their own kids. Well either Wilburt was no expert or he was already anxious just being in this car full of white people that he was unable to see through Mr. Kamper’s lame joke. As the fuse started sputtering, Wilburt started swerving and only by luck escaped ploughing into the largest man made object in North America, the great Cahokia Indian Mound. Mr. Kamper jammed his brake pedal, delighted to claim another victim and have a finally have an opportunity to use the brake. I felt sorry for Wilburt, but I was really glad it wasn’t me.
As if to make up for it, Mr. Kamper took the wheel saying, ” Now, I’m going to teach you punks something really important.” and winked conspiratorially. He pulled out a cigarette, matches, and a Coke. “Here’s how you light a cigarette while drinking a beer and steering the car at the same time.” Speeding up to 65, he put the Coke can between his legs, the cigarette in his mouth and managed to ignite the match while steadying the steering wheel. He light the cigarette, flipped the match out the window, snatched the Coke, and took a big slug. Wilburt was still pouting over the firecracker, Sandy had closed her eyes, and I was unimpressed. Although Mr. Kamper was good, I’d routinely seen my dad do much more dangerous things in the car and in a much more debilitated condition. Mr. Kamper didn’t even have a suicide knob for goodness sake.
Despite Kamper’s shenanigans, I passed the class, but flunked my driving test. I was terrified of parallel parking, but I didn’t even get that far. I blew it before I even started. I was so anxious that when the license inspector said, “Go.” I took it literally and shot across the parking lot into the street, completely ignoring a stop sign. He said excitedly, “Didn’t you see that sign?” I said “Sure but I thought I was suppose to do exactly what you said and you said go.” He looked at me with a mixture of amazement and disgust like I had just soiled my pants or something. He officially concluded that I needed a little more practice, but the truth is he thought I was too dim-witted and dangerous to drive on public thoroughfares.
I got my license three weeks later when my dad took me to the state driver’s license bureau. The inspector there was more relaxed, probably because he didn’t have to test 35 teenage boys high on driving hormones. The inspector was so fat he couldn’t buckle the seat belt, so one quick spin around the block and I was finally street legal.
Getting your license and getting a car were two different things in my family. After a traumatic experience with my older brother, my dad wasn’t about to have his car insurance cancelled or his rates doubled again, so I was banned from the family Impala and began a quest for my own car.
I owned two cars that I never actually drove. The first was a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere that I bought from Burt Franklin for 25 dollars. It looked fine and the motor ran, although it didn’t have any brakes. Burt towed it into my backyard and I worked like a Trojan for two months fixing the brake hoses. Then I parked it on the street next to our garage. This got my mother off my back, who was mad because the brake fluid had killed most of the grass in our backyard. Without insurance, I still couldn’t drive the car, but I could work on it.
About two blocks from where I lived a guy named Dave Sukowski built and raced drag racers. Every evening until midnight there would be a crowd of super cool guys hanging around his garage drinking beer, checking out his Super Stock Dodge Super Bee, and talking about motors. To the consternation of neighbors they would periodically fire up the engine which sounded like Krakatoa erupting. I decided that I would shoot for a piece of this celebrity with the younger and more naive crowd.
Using spacers I jacked the back of the Plymouth three feet in the air, painted on a racing stripe, and fashioned a spoiler from auto body putty. Through Hot Rod Magazine advertisements, I ordered decals for Hooker headers, Thrush mufflers, Valvoline motor oil, STP oil treatment, Holley carbs, Hurst shifters and Isky cams. I plastered both sides of the car with decals (strategically covering rust spots) and damn if it didn’t look like a race car. The Plymouth had a black roof and an antique Egyptian white body with extra wide fins, a hydromatic push button transmission, and a 318 cid engine desperately in need of a ring job. At nigh I would lean over the car like I was working on it and suddenly guys I didn’t even know stopped to talk to me. Daily I would start the 318 and drive 10 feet up the street or back again so the cops wouldn’t tow it in as an abandoned car. Each time the engine started, it produced enough thick white smoke to kill all the mosquitoes for a three block radius. Although it was a good summer, it really wasn’t the same as driving. And then there was that sad winter day when my dad called O’Dell’s Junkyard and had the Plymouth permanently put out of its misery. In my attempt to remedy the smoke problem I filled the crankcase with high viscosity STP which was fine in summer but once the temperature dropped, the stuff solidified and the pistons stuck in the STP like pickled pigs feet in gelatin.
That next spring I acquired the second automobile that I would never actually drive. It was a french import —a Renault (pronounced in the Midwest “Renn’-Alt”). It originally belong to my older brothers’s girlfriend’s parents who sold it to him for sixty bucks and which he then sold to me for 75$. You could use a manual crank to start it — just the thing for a cold Illinois winter.
The Renault was kept in the garage and one weekend when my parents were out of town, I was messing with it with my friends, Mickey and John. We talked about how it was a shame that it wasn’t a convertible so we could put the top down and attract girls. Mickey had a younger brother, Pat, who was kind of crazy and worked for an auto repair shop sweeping up the red stuff they throw on oil stains on the garage floor. Pat stopped by with his equally crazy friend Bobby (who had a head shaped like a football hence his nickname Bobby Footballhead) and tried to convinced us that we could easily convert the Renault into a really cool convertible using only a chisel and hacksaw. We were still discussing the possibility when impetuously Bobby Footballhead and Pat started hammering and sawing away. There was no turning back and within an hour the car’s top was completely chopped. Pat’s knowledge of structural engineering was a bit faulty and as soon as the roof was removed the entire car collapsed in upon itself like a jellyfish out of water. When my Dad got home he called O’Dell’s Junkyard to tow away the imploded Renault, making me 0 for 2 in car acquisition game.
My next car was bought at a car auction when I was a senior in high school. It was a 1960 Chevy Corvair with a three speed transmission. I customized it with two racing stripes, rear hood scoops, and a spoiler. I put baby moon hubcaps on the front wheels after painting them metal fleck blue and chrome reverses in the back. I even had insurance and could drive it. I really loved this car, but right away it started to betray me. On my very first outing I learned three things about Corvairs: 1. A Corvair can really go ninety miles an hour. 2. The Corvair has only one long fan belt that runs the oil pump, alternator, and pretty much everything else, and 3. This fan belt is very likely to break, especially if you are going 90 mile per hour and that’s why you should always have a spare fan belt.
I drove the Corvair to senior high school skip day and after dropping off my friends, I backed up over an abandoned gas pump island ripping a major hole in the oil pan. My friend Larry opined that it looked like a thousand dollar’s damage (I only paid $500 for the car). The car did freeze up from lack of oil on the way home, but I obtained a junker’s oil pan from O’Dell’s and it worked fine. But new complications arose as the car develop an insidious electrical short. The horn honked in cadence with the windshield wiper cycle, the defroster stopped working and the headlights went out whenever you stepped on the dimmer switch.
I borrowed my older brother Norman’s car to go on a date I and traded him my Corvair, forgetting to brief him on its eccentricities. Norman was driving down a very dark road when he was confronted by a driver who refused to dim his high-beams as he approached. Norman as was his custom aggressively stomped on the dimmer switch to teach the offender a lesson and terrified the other driver and himself when the Corvair’s headlights went out completely. Norman ran off the road into a horseradish field and spent 15 minutes figuring out that he needed to hit the dimmer again to turn the lights back on. He was furious at me when I returned his car. He said, ” You should take that damn Corvair, paint it black, and use it for a coffin.”
Once the Corvair began making clicking sounds whenever I made a right turn. This went on for a few weeks and then one day I was making a hard right turn in front of Schemers’ Supermarket and the clicking got louder I turned the wheel quickly and suddenly it spun all the way around and the steering column came detached from the gear box and I could pull the wheel up about two feet up in the air. I was heading directly for the front display window which contained a pyramid of Campbell’s Pork and Beans. Fortunately the brakes still worked and I skidding to a halt just short of the window.
The Corvair limped along for almost more 2 years. I finally sold it after I hit some loose gravel and slid into a drainage ditch on the way to school at Southern Illinois University. The president of the student body was driving behind me at the time and gave me a ride in his Corvette. He said he was impressed that I didn’t flip the car over. Having my eyes closed at the time, I wouldn’t know, but I voted for him anyway.
Not being able to part with the chrome reverses when I sold the Corvair, I temporarily stashed them in my mother’s basement. They were auctioned off along with everything else in the house 35 years later when my mother slipped off a new kitchen chair while reaching for a chocolate pie, broke her hip, and had to go live in a nursing home near Chicago.
My next vehicle was a Bell Telephone van that was sold because it had over 100,000 miles in mileage. It burned a lot of oil and always smelled like flatulence. Parking was a terrible problem at college but I found that I was able to park the van anywhere I wanted, as long as it was close to a telephone pole. This lasted until an inconveniently situated state trooper gave me my first ticket for not having a valid truck inspection sticker. The trooper insisted that I cover up the Bell Telephone decals, ending my parking scam. I also had to get the van inspected. I knew the van would never past inspection and for a while I drove around with a counterfeit sticker that I had traced and colored with crayons to look like the real thing. I finally took it in and to my surprise it barely passed (Thank God there were no emission inspections in those days.). I got a can of K-Mart gray primer paint and reluctantly sprayed over the Bell Telephone emblems. To compensate for the loss I stenciled “Stawar Enterprises” on the side in bright yellow letters. People were always asking me what business I was in. A few weeks later I traded the van for a metallic blue 1966 Ford Fairlane which I later sold for three hundred dollars when I went away to college that fall. I got three new crisp hundred dollar bills for the Fairlane and I kept one of the bills in my shoe the whole time I was away at college as a pecuniary security blanket.
When I graduated college and lined up a job, I bought my first real new car— a 1973 MG Midget, that cost $2,700. On the day I drove it home from the dealer I parked it over at my brother’s house. I got into his station wagon to run an errand and backing up, I crashed into my own new car, denting the grill. The dent remained as long as I owned the vehicle as a perpetual reminder of the price of unbridled impatience.
My mother’s initial comment was that the MG, “Looked like a damn roller skate.” But I was too excited about my “sports car” to be discouraged. The car had a clutch about the size of a tea saucer and I found that it needed to replaced semiannually if you habitually rode the clutch as I did. I had successfully changed the Fairlane’s clutch and despite a box of left over parts, it ran, but the Midget’s metric motor was beyond me. You had to be a left-handed, double-jointed Australian marsupial monkey to work on that car. The engine had to be pulled just to change the oil. Three clutches later I became closer than I ever wanted to be with Harold, my English mechanic, although I rather liked telling people that I had an English mechanic and Harold certainly enjoyed taking my Yank money.
One night my friend Al and I took the MG to a dive in Memphis — Bad Bob’s. We saw Jerry Lee Lewis pick a fight with some guy at the bar and decided it was a good time to leave. On the way home I hit a slick spot in the road skidding into a very soggy field. The Midget was buried in mud up to the windows and we had to take the top down just to get out. We woke up a farmer and paid him 10 bucks to pull us out with his tractor. The tractor had a cotton planter gizmo attached to the front which scratched the right front fender of the Midget, but it was worth it to get out of there. My feelings about cars were beginning to change
A year later I moved to Florida and driving the Midget through Tallahassee on my way to visit my future wife, Diane, I noticed rain drops on the windshield. I turned on the wipers and they smeared the drops which were not rain at all, but motor oil. Motor oil drops on your windshield is usually a very bad sign. Suddenly all the idiot lights went on and the gauges went berserk like a slot machine hitting the jackpot. The MG had thrown a rod and needed a complete engine transplant. I was real upset. From at point on autos became objects of fear and loathing.
Three weeks and $500 dollars later, I took the bus to Tallahassee to pick up the car. Diane rode back with me to Daytona and two hours outside of Tallahassee the MG started making a roaring sound. I discovered that the muffler had worked its way loose when they replaced the engine. We pulled into a gas station that was attended by a couple of goofy adolescents and talked them in to letting me use the service bay to fix the muffler. It was getting late and I worked frantically on the muffler, burning my arm. A local Lothario cruised by, checking out the MG, and especially Diane who was asleep in the Midget. I was oblivious to everything except the muffler and when the guy walked up and said, “Looks like she’s about had it.” I assumed he was talking about the MG, not Diane and I said, “Nahh, a little tightening and she’ll fine.”
The Midget gave me one final embarrassing moment when I drove my boss to a psychologists’ convention in Washington. DC. Halfway there the car suddenly lost power and wouldn’t go any faster that 40 miles per hour. When we got to DC we were constantly worried the car was going to stop completely and leave us stranded on one of the streets full of hookers and pushers. Prayers and threats prevailed and when we got home, Harold said the MG had a blown head gasket. My boss said a lot of other things and I never lived this down.
By this time my hatred of automobiles had crystallized. In the years that followed this feeling was further aggravated by experiences with other misfit cars. There was the “Cheese Car”. My kids christened it that because of a funky cheesy smell that we endured until the car’s engine burned up two years later. My new mechanic, Chuck, bought the car, replaced the engine and sold it at a big profit. I often wondered if he had anything to do with the engine burning up in the first place.
Next was the “Pumpkin Car”, so named because of its large size and bright orange paint job. One day while shifting gears it gave a cataclysmic shudder and oily pieces of broken gears were strewn about the road. I called the local junkyard and they towed it in giving me 25$ for the remains.
Briefly we owned a large green Chevy van. It lost two side windows while I was driving down a particularly bumpy dirt road through an orange grove. It had chronic carburetor problems requiring the butterfly choke to be forced open once it started. I drove around for three months with an English bayonet stuck in the carburetor. My dad had bought the unsharpened bayonet at the Army Depot in East St. Louis when I was eight years old. It finally came in handy.
This van also had fan belts that slipped and made terrible screeching noises. Once we were driving down a dark foggy street and saw some pedestrians walking ahead. I told my oldest son, Saul, “Watch me scare the crap out of those guys.” I am ashamed to say I snuck up on them slowly, put the van in neutral, and gunned the engine, generating a gigantic squeak which had its desired effect. All ahead squeak factor nine.
Next there was the oil leaking AMC Concord whose engine fire was extinguished by a state trooper who for once was appropriately situated. I drove the car home later when it cooled down, but I had to keep the heater running even in the middle of the Florida summer to prevent the engine from overheating. Once the incontinent Concord overheated and I pulled off the Interstate and parked under the expressway next to a pond. Within minutes a battalion of homeless vagrants were all over the car helping to carry water and giving me the benefit of their automotive expertise. So it seem that all men, regardless of socioeconomic status, are authorities when it comes to cars. The Concord gave way to the Japanese van that could turn on a dime but had to have three alternators replaced in one year.
Last year our station wagon that had its transmission replaced only to burn out again while we on vacation. We were stuck outside of Nashville at a roadside store that specialized in towels and Elvis souvenirs. I called my transmission shop and was told to contact the local warranty dealer. Arrangements were made and we all piled into a tow truck (Diane, our two youngest boys, the station wagon and me) and off we went to see Mr. Transmission. The driver suggested we stay in town a few days to see the civil war battlefield and tour the local machine gun factory. Instead we immediately rented another car and continued on the vacation from hell, like the Pony Express, shooting one lame horse and saddling up another. I thought this year things would be different but the week before vacation the car developed a severe shimmy, prompting Diane to sing “Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Puff” ever time we bounced down the street. The new tires and front end work wiped out our meager vacation savings and so another reason to despise autos.
God intended for autos to be feared and hated. They are obviously beyond the comprehension and control of most mortals. They are nothing less than malevolent entities bent on mischief and I have the physical and psychic scars to prove it.

Evaluating Your Children’s Presents this Christmas

16 Dec

This article will tell you if you bought enough and the right kinds of presents this year to make this Christmas one of wonder and awe for your children. Christmas eve is almost here. You must soon decide if Santa’s presents are sufficient to surprise and delight your children. Consider using the following five tests.
Things Required:
• Spreadsheet of all presents bought broken down by child
• Lastest credit card statement
• Your last ounce of strength
Step 1
Are there enough presents to unwrap Christmas morning? Unfortunately a dozen presents is about the minimum for a successful Christmas today. Don’t wrap each crayon separately but save batteries for the stocking. One Christmas Eve we came up short, necessitating a crisis visit to Wal-Mart. With our last ten dollars I rescued a refugee from the clearance bin— Milky the cow. This oversized Holstein with latex udders could actually be milked. Although creepy, it did put us over the top. We also scored priceless photos of our bewildered daughter examining Milky’ s underside Christmas morning.
Step 2
Did you pay enough? If you have not reached your limit on at least one major credit card, then back to the mall. Snooty toy shops can quickly increase net expenditures with bizarre educational toys from unpronounceable countries. On-line purchases also provide a great opportunity since shipping always adds 15%.
Step 3
This is critical. How flashy are the presents? Will the kid next door eat his heart out? Cheap toys with lots of lights, smoke, and noise can shore up this department. Don’t worry if they break before New Year’s, the future is now.
Step 4
Do they take up enough space? If you don’t have a bike, you might be in trouble. One year we failed to have a huge present under the tree. Christmas morning the kids said those seven words guaranteed to break your heart, “It doesn’t look like Santa Claus came.” We learned our lesson and always bulked up the haul. Inflatable toys can accomplish this in a cost effective way. Life-sized crocodiles can help set that perfect holiday mood of avarice.
Step 5
If you have more than once kid, there must be perfect balance. We have often switched gift tags at the last minute or doubled down and assigned the new X-box to two kids. This not only achieves balance, but guarantees months of holiday squabbling.

Milky the Marvelous Milking Cow (1978)

Steeltown Stories Chapter One: An Occasional Feature

4 Nov


Chapter One


          In the 1950’s Steeltown was both a wonderful and terrible place  to grow up. It simultaneously nurtured and toughened you, but  if you didn’t escape quick enough, it killed your soul.  

          The town was built on land reclaimed from the Mississippi River. Unlike the surrounding rich topsoil, Steeltown was built upon  cinders and broken bits of amber and green glass, like the kind  that comes from  shattered bottles of beer and Seven Up.  One day when I was about five years old, I  fell  climbing over the fence and a jagged piece of green glass lacerated  my hand. The purple scar at the base of my thumb is still visible. More than half century later I can remember the sting of  the   green disinfect the doctor used to scrub the wound before putting in a few stitches. When I fell, I noticed, for the first time, that the ground was made up of a  black grit, peppered with particles of  broken glass. It was on this foundation that  Steeltown was built. 

           Three steel mills, two foundries, and a railroad car factory surrounded the little town in its heyday.  With foreign  competition,  only a single steel mill survived into the twenty-first century.  The town was  part of the great rustbelt of the Midwest and even that last mill was eventually bought by a Japanese company.   The younger employees had to learn to operate the   automated systems,  while the older workers were reduced to hanging around the VFW Hall, nursing  beers and wondering just what the hell was the point of World War II anyway.

            The town was often covered by  a cloud of  hydrogen sulfide gas and we  took     pride in living in surviving such a toxic place, where just inhaling the air was the equivalent of  smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.  Of course that didn’t stop most residents from adding a pack or two of our own.  Emphysema was just another gritty testament of our ability to adapt. The pollution itself was tangible reassurance to our depression era parents that the mill was still running and that there was work to be had.   

          My own father was an electrician at the same steel mill for over 44 years. Keeping the cyclopean overhead cranes running, unexpectedly turned out to be his  life’s work. As a boy  he  tended  his  brutal  stepfather’s  still and before he started work at the steel mill,  he had a job dumping  waste from a chocolate factory into the Mississippi River.

          A lot of things in Steeltown seemed unexpected. The people were mixture of descendents of eastern European immigrants,  Appalachian migrants,  and African Americans from the deep south,  all heading to Chicago or Detroit.  No one seemed to have planned on actually going  to Steeltown. They just ended up there on their way to somewhere else.  

          It was all so long ago now, that months past without any thoughts of Steeltown,  but deep down,  when I feel  cinders in my hands or  smell something acrid in the air,  I know with confidence that  these were the experiences that  shaped  my thinking.