The Car Rental Rant

June 30, 2010

I disregarded my own oft-offered advice this trip, and drove my own car a long distance in a short time, rather than renting a vehicle for the trip. I had several reasons for this, chief among which was that there was some service required for my three-year-old Honda before the warranty ran out, and I wanted to take it back to its home dealer to get it done. Also, I have managed to put fewer than 20,000 miles on the car in all that time, so it was a good chance to blow out the cobwebs.

Normally, though, I would have rented a car for a trip of this duration and length, because it makes huge sense economically. Current statistics suggest that it costs 50 cents a mile these days to operate a car; this will of course vary depending on whether you drive a Prius or an Escalade, but it is a good round figure to work with. Thus, a trip of 3000 miles could be expected to cost $1500 all in. This is perhaps a bit simplistic, though; let’s break it down a bit.

A car’s drive train is exceptionally long-lived in the early 2000s; many cars are capable of 200,000 miles over the run of their lives. One car editor remarked that “200,000 is the new 100,000” in regard to expected longevity of the modern automobile. So, let’s use that figure; thus, our 3000-mile trip represents about 1/70 of the lifetime of the drivetrain. If it were to cost, say, $4000 to rebuild both engine and transmission (a very conservative estimate), then the portion allotted to this trip would be about $57. Tires and brakes last, on average, around 30,000 miles, so 1/10 of the price of a new set of tires and brakes should be factored in; let’s call it $600 for both, so the portion allotted to our trip would be $60. Three thousand miles of depreciation adds in another $75. An oil change, which should be done once every 5000 miles or so, adds in another $18 (60% of $30). A tune-up, required every 100,000 miles, runs about $300, so our trip costs allotted to that would run about $10. These are not all the costs of operating a car, of course, but it should serve as a baseline (I didn’t include insurance, gas, and so on, as those would be a similar issue whether using your own car or a rental). So, our subtotal for using the family car:

$57 drive train wear

$60 tires and brakes

$75 depreciation

$18 oil change

$10 tune-up

$220 subtotal (an exceptionally conservative subtotal, I think)

By contrast, using figures I just looked up online this morning, a mid-size rental car (or what passes for mid-size these days), a Toyota Corolla or similar vehicle, rents for between $164-$216 per week, with unlimited miles included. Note that even the more expensive figure undercuts the distinctly simplified numbers attached to running one’s own vehicle.

Equally important, if you have a flat tire, mechanical breakdown, or an accident en route, you simply call the car rental company, and shortly thereafter you are back on the road, either with a fixed car or a replacement vehicle. No cooling your heels at the dealer awaiting repairs (or back-ordered parts). Also, as your car ages, it becomes more likely to require such repairs; the rental car, by comparison, typically has fewer than 12,000 miles on its odometer, and would be comparatively unusual to encounter problems at that stage of its life.

I mention all this now, because last night two rocks hit my windshield within ten minutes of one another, either of which might have caused a serious crack, although for some reason neither one did. If they had, the insurance deductible would have set me back $100, and would have occasioned another minor-to-moderate internal rant about the manifold virtues of car rental.

Life is so uncertain…

June 29, 2010

When I am not writing for BookPage, burning the midnight oil on the Great Canadian Novel, or chipping away at some tedious but relatively lucrative technical writing assignment, odds are good that any writing I am doing is songwriting. I have done this solo, in tandem and in small groups since my teens, with a resounding lack of success, although I’ve had a good deal of fun in the process. I’ve taken a whack at numerous genres, including jazz, blues, rock, folk, you name it, pretty much anything other than classical and hip-hop. In loose terms, I would say that I fit in the singer/songwriter mold, along the lines of Jackson Browne, James Taylor or Paul Simon, only nowhere near as good. That assessment would go for my singing and guitar-playing skills as well.

Over the years, my focus has been, for the most part, on love songs (sub-genre: love gone wrong, a subject about which I have a certain amount of firsthand experience). An early effort:

From time to time you cross my mind, in the middle of the night

Nat King Cole on the stereo, dimming firelight

A cigarette without lipstick, a half-empty bottle of wine

And one glass where there once were two, from time to time…

(From Time to Time, c. 1983)

Around the late eighties I discovered the story-songs of Jimmy Buffett, and began writing biographical third-person love songs:

They got married in Biloxi the summer that the Beatles hit the charts

She was a wedding night Madonna, he was a bachelor of arts

Giddy from the liquor, they tumbled into bed, and loved until the early light of day

But tonight she can’t remember the last time he looked at her that way…

(The Last Time, c. 1987)

The nineties found me writing with partners: Graham Spice, Lois Berg, Dave Lakey, Greg Welsch, and several others. From that period came another batch of rather more personal love songs:

Santa Anas, blowin’ dry, lights are low, the moon is high

Late night interlude, a midnight bluesy mood

And I’m just sittin’ here

Behind the waterfall of tears…

(Waterfall, c. 1994-ish: Bruce Tierney, Kristy von Dollen, Graham Spice, Matt Nolan)

And so it went into the 2000s, at which point I began writing solo again, and taking on more global themes, likely a result of some sobering Third World travel:

It’s an ages-old story of betrayal and rage

And it plays out each night on this vast desert stage

Both sides are in costume, and both know their lines

They’ve rehearsed them together time after time (after time after time)

It’s midnight in Gaza and all’s quiet here

The curfew’s in place and the streets all are clear

There’s an uneasy truce and an unspoken fear

It’s midnight in Gaza and all’s quiet here…

(Midnight in Gaza, c. 2003)

Still, none of these were speaking to the fundamental nature of what I was trying to get at, to attempt to reveal a small portion of the very intimate and personal philosophy that guides my life on a day to day basis. I thought about it for many moons, finally arriving at a pair of couplets that effectively distill some of my deepest, innermost thoughts and feelings to their basic essence. I thought I could write a whole song around it, but the more I looked at what I had written, the more I realized that I had nothing more to say about that particular subject, that in its tiny way, it was perfect. If I have one piece of advice to offer to my younger brethren (and sistren), it would simply be this:

Life is so uncertain

If worse should come to worst

Save your vegetables for last

And eat your cookies first…

A Pig With Six Legs

June 28, 2010

I happened upon a strange and wonderful little book today, at a used bookstore in Louisville, KY. It is entitled A Pig With Six Legs, and other clouds, from the Cloud Appreciation Society. I cannot find any ISBN number on the book, but the dust jacket shows a price in UK pounds (ten of them, in case you’re interested). The Cloud Appreciation Society was formed in 2004 “to fight the banality of blue-sky thinking, and to remind people that clouds are one of Nature’s most beautiful and life-giving phenomena.” According to the intro, the society boasts some 8000 members in forty-plus countries around the world, and indeed the diversity of contributors’ names would seem to bear that out: Richard Baker; Roberto Cavallini; Fabian Klenk; Ole Johnny Nilsen; Arun Padake; Gianandrea Sandri; and Sena Zunic, to mention but a few.

All clouds are, by nature, unique, but this group of approximately thirty exquisitely photographed examples is exceptionally so. With titles such as “The Michelin Man goes to rob a bank,” “The Cloudship Enterprise,” “A first kiss is ruined by someone smoking,” “A bear trained in the cruel sport of duck juggling,” and “A mermaid swimming under a giant frog,” these are truly clouds for the ages. As editor Gavin Pretor-Pinney points out: “Not only did someone have to be looking up at just the right moment, and happen to have a camera with them at the time, they also needed to be in the particular frame of mind required to be able to see shapes in the clouds.”

In the almost 200-year-old words of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

“O! it is pleasant, with a heart at ease

Just after sunset, or by moonlight skies

To make the shifting clouds be what you please…”

Here, then, are a few examples, offered on the premise that a picture is worth 10-cubed words:

"A Dog Barking"

"A Skateboarder Doing Tricks"

Called In, Got No Answer

June 27, 2010

Years ago, I worked for a huge health insurance conglomerate as a Data Integrity Manager, or some such. I hesitate to name the firm, but its employees often referred to its labyrinthine automated phone system as “Called In, Got No Answer”, a phrase which happens to bear similar initial letters as the mother company, surely a coincidence. I was clearly not cut out for a corporate environment: my daily ability to arrive to the office in a timely manner was suspect at best, although I did my best to make up for that by leaving immediately at the close of the work day; my attitude vis-à-vis authority was execrable; my political correctness, always a weak point, occasionally dropped off the scale entirely.

On one memorable occasion, I was summoned to the home office in Connecticut, along with my immediate supervisor, to attend a series of seminars on such hot-button topics as sensitivity, the delivery of bad news, delegation of authority, and the granddaddy of all workplace issues, Teamwork. The TEAMWORK COACH (the capital letters were not my idea; he clearly thought he deserved them, as his name badge fairly shouted out his title) was named Bob, although he pronounced it “Bawb”, and I shall refer to him in this manner henceforth. Bawb was clearly a teamwork guy, and over the course of an afternoon, he intended to make all his charges teamwork guys (and gals) as well. He chose to demonstrate the value of teamwork by giving us a math problem to solve individually. It was a verbal problem, and we had to write it down as he explained it. It went something like: “(Three times nine, plus four), divided by (seventeen, times two, minus six, plus fourteen), plus (four, plus eight…)”; there was more, but you get the idea. So as I was writing down the problem, I was solving it as I went along, and of course I had the answer about three seconds after he stopped talking. He pulled out his stopwatch and said “Okay, begin; you have thirty seconds.” To be fair, I worked the problem again from the beginning, ensured that I had the right answer, and raised my hand when I finished. A couple of other hands went up about the same time as mine, but Bawb called on me.

“Thirty-four,” I said. “Bingo,” Bawb replied. “And it took you twenty-two seconds to arrive at the solution. Now let’s take the problem, break it down into its component parts, assign each part to one member of the team, and see how quickly we solve it.” (Wait a minute; he’s giving us the same problem that we just finished, the one for which we already know the answer? Something is fishy…) As you might imagine, the group of six, each tackling only one element of the equation (the very same equation we had just done, in case you haven’t been following closely), finished much more quickly, in about thirteen seconds. “There you go,” Bawb said, beaming at us. “Teamwork shaved off almost fifty percent of the time to solve the problem.”

I raised my hand again. “Um, Bawb, I’ve got a little problem with your math there. Because, um, there were six of us working on the problem for thirteen seconds, thus using an aggregate of seventy-eight seconds, so actually the team took more than three times as long to solve the problem as an individual. And that was not just one clever individual, mind you; several of us had our hands up around the same time.” A murmur among the other attendees turned into a titter, and Bawb was clearly at a loss as to how to get the group back under control. Shortly afterward we broke for lunch, and my boss and I were having a private chuckle about Bawb’s discomfiture. Bawb strode over to us, clearly peeved. “I don’t appreciate being made to look like an ass in front of my class,” he said, glaring at me.

“I think maybe that was the doing of someone other than me,” I offered drily, giving Bawb a long moment to figure out to whom I might be referring. “As far as I can tell,” I continued, “there are only two possible scenarios here: 1) you didn’t realize the inherent error of the “teamwork model”, in which case perhaps you should not be the one teaching it, or 2) you are trying to sell us, and simplistically at that, on something that you can’t back up with solid data, in which case you underestimated your audience. I mean, we are insurance guys, after all; did you not think we’d have some grasp of numbers?” Once again, Bawb was at a loss for words.

Fast forward several years, and I suppose Bawb had the last laugh, though. Last I heard, he was still basking in the security of a mid-level insurance industry gig, whereas I have been reduced to seeking my fortune in the far-flung corners of the world, a failure of epic proportions in the corporate world. Such are the vagaries of life.

Bru-chan, the US Tour, Part II

June 25, 2010

I am about halfway through my whirlwind 2010 US Tour, the first major stop being in southern Maryland, where I visited my two first cousins, Cindy and Heather, and their families. Cindy Gilmour and Heather Muldoon, in defiance of convention, have lived next door to one another for the past heaven-knows-how-many years, existing for the most part in harmony and peace, despite conflicting views on everything from politics to religion. Their adjacent properties have become known family-wide as “The Gildoon Complex”, taking its name from the blending of their married surnames. It could as easily have been “The Mulmour Complex”, I suppose, but that just doesn’t have quite the same ring. They live right on the water, and both families make fine use of that, with sailboats, motorboats, kayaks, canoes, and rafts.

Flybridge bound...

Three Monkeys, Cindy, Saki, Tom

Capt. Rick Muldoon, aboard the Irish Wake

Some cool land toys too...

Japanese lanterns, Heather and Rick's back porch

Cindy and Heather’s father, my Uncle George, lives close by and is a regular visitor. He is the last member standing of that generation of my family, and we try to hook up once a year or so when I am back in North America. At the moment, he is busy converting all of his slides and home movies to digital format, and he had this gem from my distant past. I guess I was about six at the time, standing next to his Rambler station wagon in the driveway behind our first house in Pennsylvania. The picture has a few issues (note the blurry section of the car, likely from slight movement during conversion), but the basics are all there:


Cool car, outfit less so...

From there, it was on to Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson, now a World Heritage Site. Of all the presidents’ homes, Monticello is far and away my favorite. Jefferson had a major hand in the design, and included such up-to-date touches as wine elevators, skylights, sleeping alcoves and automatic doors (the doors from one hall into another are connected by means of a bicycle-style chain and pulleys, so when you push on one door, the other automatically opens along with the first).

Is this postcard quality or what?

Now I am in Nashville, visiting friends at BookPage, stocking up at Trader Joe’s, and sampling old and new favorite restaurants throughout Music City.

BookPage Uber-Editor Lynn Green

Fiction queen Abby Plesser

Web guru Trisha Ping

BookPage Head Dude Michael Ziebart

It’s been ages since I have had ribs or Mexican food, so I intend to postpone my summer diet plans for a few more days (at least…).

Nashville artist Bill Myers, wife Bonnie, Saki, me, lotsa ribs

I hope to get over to Cheekwood to see the Chihuly glass exhibit, but time is growing short and I am not sure I will make it. From here I will head to Louisville to spend the weekend with my daughter Jenifer, and from there, quien sabe?

Rumpole Revisited

June 24, 2010

British author John Mortimer passed away last year, leaving a legacy of some of the best-loved detective novels of the 20th century, featuring the portly and bewigged barrister Horace Rumpole, known to his legions of fans as “Rumpole of the Bailey.” Rumpole was married to the strong-willed Hilda (dubbed by her droll husband as “She Who Must Be Obeyed”), who played a significant (albeit mildly annoying) role in virtually every one of Rumpole’s adventures. Although the books read as if written in an earlier time, in fact the earliest of the series dates from 1980. In all, more than a dozen collections of Rumpole stories were published, as well as several novels. The final collection, A Rumpole Christmas, is a collection of Yuletide-themed short stories, a couple of which verge on novelettes.

In one, Rumpole meets a strangely familiar Father Christmas (England’s version of Santa Claus), a white-bearded charmer with larceny in his heart, at least at the outset. In another, She Who Must Be Obeyed books a holiday stay in “the restful tranquillity of Minchingham Hall”, a health spa intended to shave a number of pounds (both in the avoirdupois and monetary senses) off the rotund Rumpole. His customary libation of cheap wine (“Chateau Thames Embankment”) is to be replaced by yak milk, of which he opines drily, “We were told it is very popular with the mountain tribes of Tibet. It may have tasted fine there, but it didn’t, as they say of some of the finest wines, travel well.”

Two novelettes make up the final half of the book. The first, Rumpole and the Old Familiar Faces, reunites Rumpole with some shady characters from his past, one of whom has crafted a remarkable new identity, another of whom may have managed to commit the “perfect murder”, complete with unassailable alibi. Additionally, Rumpole gets taken in by a resourceful man of the cloth, proving yet again that the Lord works in mysterious ways. In the second novelette, Rumpole and the Christmas Break, our hero defends a would-be terrorist who issued a fatwa on a professor of comparative religions at a London university, shortly after which said professor was murdered. The professor, Honoria Glossop, had written a book on the atrocities committed in the name of religion, and had unwisely included a scathing section on ayatollahs and the cruelty of Islamic fundamentalism. Client Hussein Khan freely admits issuing the fatwa, but avows in no uncertain terms that his hand was not the one to dispatch Honoria Glossop to her final reward. The forensic evidence would seem to lend credence to Khan’s claim, as there was no gunshot residue or blood spatter to be found on his person or clothing, but his demeanor is sufficiently grating that the jury seems strongly inclined to convict unless Rumpole is able to pull the proverbial rabbit out of his hat.

Sadly, A Rumpole Christmas is the last of a brilliant series, one final treat for Mortimer’s readers. By turns hilarious, insightful, timely and timeless, the Rumpole series promises to win readers and critical acclaim well beyond its author’s passing.

A Minor Book Rant

June 22, 2010

If you have purchased a book lately, perhaps you have looked at the inside front cover to check the price, and noticed this disparity:  US price–$24.99; Canadian price $31.99. What’s up with that?!! With the US and Canadian dollar at virtual parity (a Canuck buck is currently worth about 98 cents US), a $24.99 book should run about $25.50 north of the border, all things being equal. This example errs on the conservative side, actually, as one recent huge bestseller carried a $24.95 US price, and a whopping $37.95 Canadian price! One Canadian chain bookstore, in a move to address the disparity, now offers to sell books at their US cover price, but that is the retail cover price, and who pays that in the US these days? In fairness, the Canadian Copyright Act allows for an extra 10% to be tacked on to the price of books sold in Canada, over and above the US cover price, to cover the extra cost of shipping and handling associated with a cross-border purchase. Even at that, our $25.50 book referenced above rises to only $28.05, still well shy of $31.99. What makes this doubly weird is that both prices are listed adjacent to one another on the flap of virtually every book in print, so we Canadians can see just how much extra we are paying for the privilege of shopping in the Frozen North. We are used to paying more up here for stuff, but this is the only instance I can think of in which we are so blatantly reminded just how much extra we pay. Imagine the outcry from Canadian car buyers if both the US and Canadian prices were listed on the window sticker. A 2010 Mini Cooper S Convertible, for example: US price, $27,850; Canadian price, $36,350 (both prices sourced this morning from MINI factory websites). Yikes!

So, what is to stop Canadian buyers from simply buying their books from US bookstores and web sites? Basically nothing, and they are doing it in unprecedented numbers. Canadian buyers’ duty-free exemption for two-day cross-border trips recently increased from $200 to $400, so book lovers close to the border (and virtually everybody in Canada lives within spitting distance of the US border) can stock up and net themselves a nearly free international trip thanks to the savings.

However bad prices may be in Canada, they are amplified exponentially in Japan. Although home market books are quite reasonable (less than comparable US prices, for the most part), English language fiction is exceptionally dear. Two recent purchases, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart set me back the yen equivalent of $60 apiece. I am happy for two things at least: first, both books were eminently worth it on their literary merits; and second, the Japanese bookstores were kind enough to post their prices on stickers which covered the original US (and Canadian) prices, thus taking a (tiny) bit of the sting out of the sticker shock.