Archive for December, 2009

Vehicles I have known

Here’s a list of all the vehicles I have owned and when I got them; at least, I think I remember them all.  Engine and transmission details and fate of car, if any of those have the slightest interest.

The '58 Corvette

1966:  a 1958 Chevrolet Impala convertible, 283 cubic inch V8, 3 speed that someone had modified from the column to the floor; Hurst Mystery Shifter.  A very heavy car, a Cleveland special with bad rust, e.g. almost no floor boards left in the back.  I put a lot of body filler into it, had it painted for $29.95 at Earl Scheib, and sold it.  A great cruiser for a teenager on warm evenings around the city.

1968:  Honda Super Hawk motorcycle (1965?), 305 cubic centimers.

1968:  ’61 Pontiac Catalina, 389 cu. in.  Abandoned in central Wyoming after it threw a rod or something equally horrible.

1969:  Plymouth Valiant station wagon, slant six engine, stick on the column.  Paid $100 with a friend for it.  We loaded a Matchless motorcycle basket case that I had bought, like an idiot, in Chicago.  The bike parts were too heavy for the car; we slid off the road in Utah in light rain while my friend was driving.  We rolled over sideways but were unhurt.  The car had no seatbelts.

Bought a ’59 Chevy wagon for $100 in Heber City, Utah.  That got us to San Francisco, where it died on the Oakland Bay Bridge.

’58 Buick, electric everything, all of it waiting to stop working.  ?  maybe paid $200.  Got me from Kansas City to Chicago, died there; had no reverse by then.  I abandoned it on a Chicago street.

’64 or so Ford Falcon.  6 cyl., I guess.  Reliable, started in the Chicago winters.  No synchromesh into first gear–a real pain–had to slow to almost nothing to downshift into first.

1970:  bought a used (’69 maybe) Norton Atlas motorcycle in London.  750 cc, 2 carbs.  Got me to Istanbul and back to the Netherlands.  Gave it to a Dutch friend.  Long story.

1972:  Pontiac Catalina, 1966, bought in Ann Arbor.  389 cu. in.  A comfortable road car.  It overheated in Death Valley in August.  A trucker stopped and told me to run the heater full blast–it acts like an extra, small radiator.  That did the trick–I got out of the valley, where the temp had been about 116.  Driving with the heater on full blast, you feel that.

This car got me around a lot; cross country and back.  But had to abandon it to the Queen in Canada.  Wonder what she did with it.

1976: bought a well-used Mustang from a friend in Ann Arbor.  Pretty well rusted, but bondoed it and had it repainted.  It actually ran well.

bought a ’69 Ford F100 in Ann Arbor.  Had a 360 cu in V8 (yes, Ford made one for a while).  3 speed on the column.  Had a camper shell.  Fixed that up with carpet, a bed, cupboards with closing metal mesh doors, even curtains.  Drove it across the US through various national parks, up and down California.  Sold it in Palo Alto.

Ford F100 before redo

1977:  bought a ’58 Corvette in LA.  283, 4 speed.  Basically a small Chevy sedan.  Handled terribly but fun to drive; turned everyone’s head.  Had it redone, engine, trans, new manifold and Holly 4 barrel carburetor,  brakes, drove it to DC.

For some reason, girls liked the 'Vette

There finally had the steering fixed, rechromed, painted.  The interior was still trashed; even the console had been ripped out.   So far from original that it wasn’t worth much.  Tried to sell it through a consignment place in Northern Virginia; they made me take it back after the cops looked it over and couldn’t find any serial numbers anywhere–of course it had been stolen at some point.

The truck rehabbed

Buick predo

Buick redo

Buick Skylark convertible, 1967, small V8 (? 302 cu in).  Had it repainted, new carpet and upholstery.  Looked and ran great!  Drove it from DC to LA, sold it there.

1979:  Chevy Monte Carlo, 1970.  350 cu in, 250 horsepower (or so a decal on the air cleaner said).  This car also overheated in CA in the summer, in the desert near San Bernadino.  This time my wife was along.  We made it to my mother’s house in LA with the heater running.  We must have drunk a gallon each of water and lemonade when we got to my mom’s.

The Buick shines

1985:  a new car!  Bought it in El Paso.  Too bad it was a doggy, a 1985 Chevy Cavalier with a 4 cyl. engine and an automatic.  I think it was rated at something like 85 horsepower. Well, it was okay for a fairly long time; didn’t have much trouble with it.  We went to Boston and back.  I once drove it 750 miles in a day by myself.  Yeah, yeah, you’ve done more; but that’s as much as I ever want to do.  The car was dying when I got rid of it in Cincinnati in 1999.

1989:  Chevy S10 pickup, about an ’86 ; nice small truck with a V6, automatic, shell.

1994:  a new Chrysler Concorde.  V6 and adequate power.  Really comfortable; great road car.  It did have problems; had to have a new trans fairly quickly.

1999:  leased a ’97 Buick Regal GS 3.8 liter pushrod V6 with a supercharger, leather.  This car would fly in a straight line.  Maybe not like a true muscle car of the ’60s-early ’70s, but fast.

2004:   a new Subaru Forester, turbo, 210 hp.  Very sure-footed small SUV.  Pretty quick, pretty much a pleasure to drive.

2005:  Ford Focus with about 6,000 miles on it.  Virtually a trouble-free car to this day.  Go Ford!  Yes, a dog, but reliable, cheap transportation.

And that’s all, until I catch up with my Volvo in Sweden.


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The USS Cole in Aden, 2000

A man from Nigeria tried to blow up a plane landing in Detroit on Christmas Day. Nigeria, not Afghanistan. He says he got explosives from someone in Yemen. Remember the USS Cole, which had a big hole blown in its side in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000? And where did the 9/11 hijackers come from? Right, mostly from Saudi Arabia, with a few from the Gulf States, 1 from Lebanon. Nuke northern Nigeria? Obliterate Yemen? Occupy Saudi Arabia?

Or try more nation building–see who else wants our help at the point of a gun? By the way, the worst state of affairs for women anywhere, anytime, is war. Afghanistan has been constantly at war, usually heavily promoted from the outside, since 1979.

It would be better to remove some of the irritant that has made so many Muslims hate us. I don’t say cave in to them–because how would we cave to people who are not organized as a state and don’t have state support? Now we are supposedly doing 2 jobs in Afghanistan, preventing more terrorism from there (it didn’t come from there in 2001 but, yes, the Taliban sheltered Bin Laden) and building a nation. These 2 tasks are incompatible. And, of course, there never was a “nation” of Afghanistan, only various peoples not ruled from Kabul.

When people resent what we do–and when we kill in the name of peace, the victims are just as dead–someone will be able to find among the survivors a person, or a group, crazy or fanatical enough to become terrorists. Then when we react with military force, we get the wrong people. You can sometimes conquer a country, but you can’t conquer an attitude. This is not a Tom Clancy world–we do not always get the terrorists. We do perpetuate a cycle of hatred.

Solutions: no USS Cole in Aden, no bombing of the USS Cole. No troops in Afghanistan, no more immediate reason for Afghans to hate us. Yes, we have to have embassies, and the one in Kenya was bombed in 1998. But we can reduce the reasons that anyone wants to bomb us in the first place. Peace for Israel and Palestine–a real peace, with a real division of the land–would make much of the hatred for America among Muslims evaporate. This is the road President Obama started down in his Cairo speech, only to pull way back and send more troops to Afghanistan. My guess is that he did that to try to save health care reform; he could not afford to be accused (although he was anyway) of being soft on terrorism by our own fundamentalist American wing nuts.

Terrorism rises and falls according to internal conditions in a country or region, not because of counter-terrorism. Of course we need to take measures, even more measures, to protect ourselves. But terrorism usually collapses by itself, as shown by the history of Northern Ireland, where disgust rose among Catholics and Protestants over killings by both sides. Ditto the Baader-Meinhof Gang in West Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, and so on. Terrorism ended in those cases because the populace grew sick of violence and didn’t support the terrorists any longer.

On the other hand, terrorism may be successful and then fade away. What was the most successful terrorist group ever? Our very own Ku Klux Klan in the years just following the Civil War. The Klan then had the support of the great majority of Southern whites. By the early 1870s, the Klan had gone a long way toward achieving its main objective of driving African Americans and their Northern sympathizers out of public life. Menachem Begin’s Irgun succeeded in Palestine vs. the British after WWII, who abandoned the fight rather than take on the entire Jewish population. Unless an outside force can totally overrun a country and control every square foot, as the Allies and the Soviets did in Germany in 1945, intervention doesn’t work. The Germans then understood that their country had been utterly defeated. Don’t say Malaya in the 1950s–the British left and granted independence; otherwise, “terrorism,” i.e. an anti-colonial movement, would have reappeared there. We cannot achieve complete control in Afghanistan, let alone Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen, the Philippines, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and a few more.

If it’s not Tom Clancy’s world, it’s not mine, either. So we can expect more terrorism. Thank God the Nigerian was an idiot.

Peace to you.

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Today (Dec. 23) on National Public, Radio Michelle Norris interviewed Kathryn Stockett, author of the novel The Help, about two African American female domestics who work for white families, set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1950s. “Stockett has been criticized for trying to cast how a black maid might feel in a white household.”

Okay, no question that it’s a stretch for an educated, white woman in the 2000s to write from within the mind of a poor, uneducated black woman in the 1950s. But aren’t we skirting, at least, the idea that blood determines outlook? Michelle Norris is black; she was “named ‘Journalist of the Year’ by the National Association of Black Journalists” earlier this year. After attending the University of Wisconsin, she graduated from the U. of Minnesota–how much more Northern could she be? She now lives with her husband and children in Washington, D.C. Can Norris reach across time, space, and class much better than Stockett because Norris is African American?

Maybe–but I see no guarantee of that. Leo Tolstoy was a count, yet he wrote effectively–let’s not use “truthfully” except in the title of this post–about the lives of peasants and Cossacks. Should we question Tolstoy, if we could, about his right to portray a woman in passion and torment, Anna Karenina? What about digging up Gustave Flaubert to interrogate him about Emma Bovary?

More exactly on the point, what business did James Baldwin, a gay black man, have writing the story of a lynching from the point of view of a white deputy sheriff in “Going to Meet the Man”?

One answer is that we are talking about literature. That means that stories are made up; imagination rules. I find the portrayal of the sheriff in Baldwin’s story disgusting, and I believe that Baldwin contrived the character out of tales that he heard about white racists in order to make a point about racism. I have not read The Help, but I would bet dollars to donuts that the black domestics are drawn highly sympathetically.

A second answer is that when we write about characters that are not ourselves, or even when they are, whether in fiction or non-fiction, we must cross many lines. I suggest that in any kind of writing, social class is nearly as important as race–especially when we consider that race is a constructed category, dependent on one’s cultural background, itself . . . oh, well.

A third answer is that there is no such thing as a black point of view, a white one, and so on. We have multiple viewpoints depending on a vast array of factors, and our own probably change day by day. Contemplate that, and in the meantime I will continue to value the images of black people by the white writers Carson Cullers in, among many examples, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and, yes, Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson.

Good reading to you.

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Let's just stay here

T minus 15

What’s to be afraid of about traveling in Western Europe?
A plane I’m in might crash
A plane might fall on me
I might crash my car
I could be lonely
I could order a chicken in French and be arrested for threatening to blow something up


I will be almost totally independent; the course I will teach ends on March 12, after which my time will be almost completely my own

No one will tell me how to put on a tablecloth or to give the dog his pills. Now (T minus 14, I will amend that idea), I have a good marriage, 30 years of mostly very good or great times. Sure, a few fights, but we’ve made up quickly. When I travel, or at any other time, I don’t mess around with other women. I don’t want to!  Of course, I’ve never gotten an offer other than from a prostitute or two. But there is something to be said for freedom. If you have 90 percent freedom in your life, you will kick about the other 10 percent. If you have total freedom, you will wish you had something to lose. All that still means that, even in a really good marriage, it’s useful to have a break now and then from the Petty Demons of the union. I suspect that they kill more marriages than anything else, although precise causes of divorce are hard to pin down. When I was a child, we had a book in the house, an old book even for the time, called The Perhapsy Chaps. If something got lost, the Perhapsy Chaps had stolen it. They broke things and left your clothes lying where your parents had said not to leave them. So for a time I will leave the Petty Demons and the Perhapsy Chaps at home, for they do not travel well. No, I shall take my own Demons and Chaps with me, but I get along pretty well with them.

I will have a brand new car and enough money to travel around and live pretty well

I will learn something each time I step out of my apartment, or maybe even during most waking moments in it

My research topic (the cultural life of coffee in the western world) is absolutely of my own devising

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T minus 19.

And Chicago by the way.

Intelligentsia's Millenium Store (Randolph near Michigan)

Today the filmmaker David Sholle and I went to Intelligentsia Coffee‘s roastery (that’s the name for a place where they actually roast coffee) in Chicago.  We did some more filming there for our project “What is Good Coffee?”  I mean good in all senses–to drink, for the farmers, for the environment, for people in the business.  We have filmed in Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama, and have interviewed some of America’s top coffee people at a conference I put together at Miami U (the original, in Ohio) in 2008.

I learned a great deal today, of course.  The head buyer for Intelligentsia is Geoff Watts, famous in the business for his knowledge–and wonderful by me because of his great patience and willingness to share his knowledge.  He showed us around the roastery from top to bottom.

Intelligentsia is a superb firm.  I don’t want to tout their coffee so much as praise the way they do business.  From the old Gothold roasters that they have refurbished–funky machines made no later than the mid-1960s–to the way they bring people up through the company, they do things right.  What I liked best about what I heard today is the money they get to coffee farmers for their crop and how the money gets there.  Intelligentsia has transparent contracts that specify up front how much the growers get, at the “farm gate.”  The costs for transportation, fees to a coop, taxes, etc., are also specified.  Thus everyone in the chain in the producing countries knows how much each step costs–there is no more of the idea that somebody is making money unfairly off my coffee, my mill, my honest export firm.  And the money at the farm gate is much higher than Fair Trade pays in its minimum contracts, $1.35/lb non-organic, $1.55 for organic.  Now, Intelligentsia buys only very good or excellent coffee, rated 85 points or higher.  For more on this scale and on great coffee, see Ken Davids’ Coffee Review.  Ken is also extremely knowledgeable, and a great person.  Why is it that everyone I meet in the world of coffee is a fine person?

Good coffee to you.

A roaster (person) with his roaster (machine that cooks green coffee)

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Driving in Europe

“Driving in my car, smoking my cigar, the only time I’m happy’s when I play my guitar”

–Cream–can’t remember the name of the song.

Since I don’t smoke cigars or play guitars, that leaves the cars.  Well, maybe a few other sources of happiness.  But I’m an American of a certain generation, and for me fun, fun, fun was and often still is in the car.

It must be worth something that I have been driving for more than 43 years without an accident more serious than a minor fender-bender.  And that I have driven, besides in the U.S., in



Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama




France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany (numerous times), Switzerland and other places I can’t remember.  Not to mention riding in cars elsewhere.

Driving in Germany in May 2009:  on the plane on the way over, I read an article in the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung about how bad the interior and exterior design of American cars was, and how our stupid SUVs sit in rows at airport rental lots waiting to be driven so that we can waste gasoline.  Okay, in general European auto design is better, and U.S. manufacturers spent way too much time for years on cup holders and interior lights (I once had a Chrysler with 14 interior lights).  But now we are doing better, as we are with reliability, while most cars made around the world look remarkably like each other.

But what irritated me most about the article followed in the next ten days of driving on the Autobahns.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s basically a pleasure to drive on them; German drivers move fast but courteously.  They pass and then get over, partly because if they don’t, something even faster will literally be on their bumper at any moment.  I first drove in Germany in the summer of 1970, on a British Norton Atlas motorcycle.  750 cc of power, at least by British standards of the day; terrible brakes, and of  course it leaked oil, but it was a blast to ride.  I went all the way from London to Istanbul and back, or almost; that’s a long story.  When I first got onto the Autobahns on the bike, I didn’t understand the etiquette.  When I was in the left lane and saw lights flashing way behind me in the mirror, I didn’t give it a second thought.  But you bet I did when in what seemed like the next second, a big car was some six inches behind my back tire.  I moved over.

Anyway, this past May, I rented some kind of semi-dogmobile, can’t even remember what it was; it would go 100 mph and stay fairly steady.  I passed many vehicles, but I was being passed by big Mercedes etc. going 150 (multiply by 1.6 to get  kilometers per hour;  150 mph equals about 241.4 km/hr).  According to CarJunky.com,

Driving 10 mph faster than the speed limit [I assume this means 10 mph over 65] increases fuel consumption by 20%. Increase speed to 20 mph faster than necessary and the extra gas wastage climbs to 25%.  [Than necessary?  That’s completely vague, but we all get the point.]

So at 150 . . . Whether it’s fine to drive that fast or 100 mph is for everyone to say individually; of course, I could rationalize my own speed–at which gas consumption is poor.  A steady 60 mph would be about optimum.  In the land of the Greens, where for more than ten years there have been recycling containers on every street, carefully marked for different colors of glass and so forth, and where the journalists complain about American gas guzzlers–to drive at 150 mph is not exactly going green.  I don’t want to hear any more complaints from Deutschland about our gas mileage.   FYI, as is everything here, a handy chart for converting our way of thinking about consumption, miles per gallon, into Euro mode, kilometers per liter, is at


Still, we could certainly take a tip from the Germans and drive on the right except to pass.  Do bear in mind that those funky Brits, Irish, Jamaicans, Kenyans, and so on do it on the wrong side.

Good driving to you.

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Buying a Volvo in Europe

T minus 31; departure is Jan. 2. What can go wrong before I leave, with buying a car in Europe and staying there for a reasonable length of time, has gone wrong. But hopefully everything has been fixed.

The car: so you want to buy a car in Europe? Okay, you search for the best deal. Voila! A Volvo, since V. pays for your flight over and back and because you can drive the car for 6 months in Europe (others only 2 months) without paying Euro taxes (25%!!). Shipping the car home is included in the deal. The prices are better than in the States. So you go to your local Volvo dealer and see if they have what you want already at the factory or whether you have enough time before departure to have them build exactly the car you desire. Then go find a loan. No problem, says my local credit union. So I happily went in to the c u on the appointed day, where they had the check ready for the dealer. But they wouldn’t give it to me. Get the dealer to send us the title first, they said. Um, I replied, I thought you understood that the car is in Sweden, and that’s where the title is. Upshot: hours later, I had to take out a home equity line to get the money for the dealer. Hey, if you don’t have enough equity in your home to cover the cost of a car, you can’t get the car in Europe! There’s gotta be a better way . . . At any rate, one problem up, one problem down.

How to stay in Europe for 6 months: you must have a visa. Ever heard of the Schengen Area? I thought I was more or less up to speed on basic European legal arrangements. Nope. The Schengen Area, named after a town in Luxembourg where a treaty was signed in 1985 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schengen_Agreement)now encompasses 25 European countries, except the UK, Ireland, and much of Eastern Europe. Note that it’s not just the EU but also Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, etc.

Americans can enter this area without a visa, but can stay for no more than 90 days in any 6-month period without one. But I want to stay for 6 months. I am going to teach at the campus of an American university in Luxembourg. My course runs only from January to March 12, but after that I want to goof off and even do some research. 90 days means I would have to leave at the end of March. So, after months of telling everyone at the university what I wanted to do, I found out only on Dec. 1 about the 90 day limit. You have to know what you need to ask about in order to ask!

So the dean of the American campus in Lux quickly went into action; he promises me an affiliation, with visa, with the U. of Luxembourg–and a stay of 6 months.

2nd problem up, 2nd problem down–but does it mean a battle with the Lux bureaucracy, an organ to be feared? Stay tuned.

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