Thursday, January 31, 2013

A few things I don't want to know

I've got to admit, as soon as I get back to the place my Carolina grandsons call "the snowy house," my focus changes somewhat. Instead of gazing out the window at the wild, wonderful Atlantic Ocean and walking the beach in search of shells and other interesting bits of flotsam, my Galva routine--especially on cold, wintery days and after dark-- often includes a hearty dose of the almighty tube.
That's right. Television.
Of course, it's not like we've got one of those home theatre systems that I admire on visits to electronics stores and the homes and basements of my many rich and famous friends, but we do have basic cable and a big old set that has enough screen size to enable me to read the score from across the room. And really, that's all I need.
Some recent surgery and the resulting period of required rest, recuperation and off-and-on visits to a pharmaceutically induced la-la land just served to enhance my new-found TV jones, keeping me glued to the tube as surely as if I had been chained to my recliner with the remote control duct-taped to my hand.
Here's what I discovered.
First off, there were no real surprises regarding my personal tastes and preferences. I still like cop shows and sports, plus a healthy smattering of history and the nature-based programming my sons used to derisively describe when they still lived under my roof.
Son 1: Where's dad?
Son 2: Out back watching one of his bug shows.
I still think reality shows are patently unreal, both in terms of content and quality, but, hey, that's just me, and I don't mind if you watch them as long as you don't make me watch them with you.
To be quite honest, the portion of the TV arena that puzzles and disappoints me the most is the news. Time was, the national and local news shows were on-air entities where smart-seeming people told us interesting things about important stuff. And for sure, a certain amount of that goes on still. But more and more, much of what passes for news and information on television is pretty darned dumbed down.  Now, I suppose it could be that the insightful geniuses who run TV news are sort of feeling threatened by the content available on what has to be their main competition--the internet. And it's true, where else would I have discovered informational treasures like the newly discovered fact that the Dung Beetle uses The Milky Way for navigation, or the latest on the earth-shaking maple leaf controversy in Canada? But when it comes to TV news, I've decided it's not so much what I know or want to know that counts anymore.
It's what I don't want to know, which often coincides with the content they seem to go on and on and on about.
For example...
• I don't care if Manti Te'o's girlfriend is real, unreal, dead or alive. Now that the BCS Championship game is over, all I really do care about is whether the Bears have a shot at him in the NFL draft.
• I know it's hard to believe, given that I am a much-admired fashionista myself, but I really don't need to know who is wearing what by whom as they saunter into any of the plethora of entertainment awards shows that have been on the air lately.
• Did Beyonce lip synch the National Anthem? Beats me. Does it matter?
• I do not know--nor do I care to know--anything about anyone named Kardashian.
• Our president called it. It was he, after all, who laughingly called the unveiling of his wife's new bangs just a few days before his second inauguration, "the most significant event of this weekend."
I agree, she looked cute. But it's just a haircut, kids.
Let's get over it.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

People say I'm crazy

If I've heard it once, I've heard it three-and-a-half gazillion times since we arrived back in Galva a couple of weeks ago:
Now, I've done plenty of things over the years to warrant this question, I know. But this time, I really guess I can understand why they're asking.  After all, anybody who would leave a beach house in North Carolina to come back to Illinois in the height of January might just be rightfully considered to be something less than the sharpest pencil in the box. But after spending both Thanksgiving and Christmas on the sandy island where we live for parts of each year, we both felt like it was time to go home for awhile.
I admit, I doubted my own sanity when temperatures out there started zooming up into the mid- and upper-70s beginning on the day we left, a more-than-temperate weather status that stuck around for well over a week after we headed north. But my young Carolina grandsons were excited to see the snow pictures I started sending when we hit the mountains of West Virginia.
I was, too.
Kind of.
Meanwhile, it's been good to see our home and the dear friends we miss whenever we're away. We've enjoyed the Galva Arts Council coffeehouse, basketball games, lunches down the street and in Bishop Hill, visits to the library, our regular Thursday night gatherings and Sunday mornings at church.
It was even kinda nice to see the mad cat named Max, who, apparently, sensed we were coming home and temporarily deserted his plush vacation digs down the street to meet and greet us as we pulled into the driveway. He is, in fact, so glad to see me that he hasn't even bitten me yet, though I sense he is beginning to become impatient with my slow-moving morning ways and will soon resume his time-honored custom of nipping me on the calf when I don't dish up his breakfast in a fast-enough fashion.
But Max is not the only resident of the ancestral abode beginning to resume some unwelcome, not unexpected activity. We had only been home a few days when I heard the horrifying sound of my ever-active spouse dragging a stepladder and a vast conglomeration of painting equipment from the basement.
Me: What are you doing?
She: I found an almost-full gallon of semi-gloss down there, so I thought I'd paint the laundry room.
Me: Didn't we just do that?
She: I think it was November...
Me: Yeah, so you see...
She: ...of 1986.
Me: Oh. Yeah.
Fortunately, I had a few other fish to fry while she was happily slapping paint around, so I mostly dodged that task, except for some oh-so-manly appliance-shoving, curtain hanging and light-fixture replacing. But my day will come, I know. Because, there's always something to do around this old house of ours, and as we speak, she's probably making a list. Chances are, my name is on it.
This midwestern swing will also include a much-anticipated visit to our much-missed son Colin and his family in the cold, wind-swept prairies near Fargo, ND. And if traveling conditions allow, I'd also like to check off another entry on my personal bucket list by heading way north to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to see my sister and her family, and attend a sporting event I've always had a hankering to see: The U.P. 200 dogsled race.
Don't say it. Crazy, right? Maybe so.
Eventually, it'll be time to head south again. We already miss our grandboys and the wondrous, not-to-be-missed chance we get to be a part of their busy little lives. Spring comes early in Coastal North Carolina, too, with sunny days, warming waters and a beach chair with my name on it.
But, there's no hurry. No big hurry to be anywhere else but here.
Because I'm crazy.
Crazy for the place I call home.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The worst car in the world

Like many folks, I've always been kind of a sucker for lists. Especially those that state "the best" and "the worst" of any variety of things. I'm a little bit of a car guy, too, so it's no surprise I was drawn to an online article on a financial information website called thestreet. com that discussed the "10 Worst Cars of All Time" as rated by Edmunds, a top automotive magazine and site.
Hmmm. Interesting.
Especially since I owned two of them.
Now, two out of ten might not seem too bad. But the fact is, both of the lemons I drove actually finished in the top five of that list. And both were absolutely, positively infamous in terms of engineering and quality, even when I owned them.
First on my personal worst list was an early 70s Chevrolet Vega. Its ghastly color should have been a dead giveaway, as what Chevy called "Midnight Blue" was much, much closer to "Pukey Purple." And, unfortunately, the color was just about the best thing about the wretched vehicle.
It was slow. It was bumpy. It was loud.
The steering wheel was off-kilter, aiming left when the car was (kind of) going straight.
But the most memorable thing about the car that Popular Mechanics claimed "nearly destroyed General Motors" was what it taught me about automotive engine oil.
It is sold by the gallon, not just quart-sized cans.
Thanks to an aluminum-block engine with unlined cylinders that warped in short order, the car consumed oil like a hungry Swede at a Christmas Eve smorgasbord. We had bought the car used when a front-end accident left us in need of a vehicle in a hurry, so we had no warranty and no recourse except to keep it running by putting in oil.
So constantly, in fact, that we finally gave up checking it in the conventional manner, and just kept a gallon jug of 30-weight in the hatchback and waited for the oil light to flicker. While driving at highway speeds, this happened frequently, bringing new, true meaning to the old punch line, "Fill 'er up with oil and check the gas."
But at least the Vega was a kind of mainstream car choice; a car that quite a few folks liked and purchased. A car that even won a couple of awards before its serious flaws came to light. So, at least a lot of people made the same mistake.
My next automotive faux pas was absolutely spectacular, both in terms of bad judgement going in and constant buyer's remorse for the entire period we owned it.
It was a Yugo.
But wait, I have an excuse.
Maybe not a good one, but an excuse all the same.
You see, my father once got the undivided attention of the entire city of Galva when he bought a 1959 Volkswagen. It was the first beetle in town, and was his "second" car, teamed up with his pride and joy, a glorious, royal blue 1951 Packard, a vehicle so big and bountiful that you could have raised an entire family of four in the back seat, with room for a litter of puppies in the rear window well.
"You gonna keep that in the trunk for a spare, Keith?" was the kind of response dad got from the Galva wits when they got a look at his new purchase. Truth be told, I'm positive my quiet, modest dad didn't buy the car to attract attention. Rather, I'm sure he thought it would be fun to drive, economical for the weekend trips he took to see my uncle in Moline, and, at just under 2,000 bucks brand-new, entirely affordable. In exchange, he got a thrifty, well-engineered little vehicle with, other than a slide-back canvas sunroof, absolutely no frills. No radio. No air conditioning, of course, and not much in the way of heat, either. Not even a gas gauge (you had to measure it with a stick or switch to an auxiliary tank when the engine started to sputter.  Dad had a lot of fun with the little coupe, which later served as a "first car" for both my siblings and me. We really missed it after it was gone.
My reasoning for buying the Yugo seemed at least partially sound at the time. I was driving a big, old Mercedes Benz at the time, a behemoth of a car I had bought cheap from a Peoria banker just because I thought it would be cool to own one. It was, but I soon discovered that while my car was pretty much a "beater Benz," it cost every bit as much to repair as a newer, nicer model. More, maybe. When the new Yugos suddenly appeared at a Quad Cities car dealer, I was reminded of dad's purchase of the VW. After all, like the Volkswagen, the Yugo was small, economical, and, with a sticker price under 4,000 bucks brand-new, pretty darned affordable for the late 80's.
That, unfortunately, was where the resemblance ended.
There was an actual line of people waiting to test drive the tiny hatchbacks when we got to the dealership, which just served to frantically enhance the "gotta get one" urges bubbling through my pea-brain. Finally, it was our turn. I should have probably taken my money and run as soon as the salesman began his "sales pitch."
Me: It's kind of squeaky.
He: What do you expect for $3,995?
Me: Can you adjust the steering wheel?
He: Not for $3,995.
...And so on.
I admit, I just kept thinking of my dad and his Volkswagen. So I did it. I bought the Yugo. A yellow one. With an optional roof rack that somehow, I thought, made it look more substantial.
"It can't be that bad," I reasoned.
Yes, it could.
Almost from the get-go, the car began literally falling apart around us. Mostly, it was little stuff, like the driver's-side windshield wiper flying off during a hard rain or the fold-down back seat refusing to fold back up again. Rattles got louder and the ride grew even rougher. But things took a dramatic turn for the worst when the engine blew sky-high near Rockford while my wife's sister was driving the car.  A blown head gasket caused the tiny, tinny engine to overheat almost immediately, reducing it to the melted slag from whence it came before she could maneuver it off the interstate highway.
"At least it's under warranty," I thought when I got the frantic phone call from my shell-shocked sister-in-law.
Or not.
The happy folks from the Yugo warranty department insisted the damaged had been caused by "operating the vehicle in an overheated state," while I countered that the problem had been triggered by a part failure. The back-and-forth debate could have gone on indefinitely, I guess. After all, what was I going to do, sue them?
Well, as a matter of fact, yes.
A couple of the things ad agency guys had in those days were good business directories and a multitude of connections, so it wasn't all that tough to get ahold of the direct phone number of the poor sap who was then president of Yugo America, a job that must have been just about as precarious and uncertain as king of one of those remote little nations you see on movies that deposes and beheads its rulers every three days or so.
She: Mr. Smith' s office, may I help you? (name changed because I don't remember it)
Me: Yes, my name is John Sloan. I'm in the process of suing you, and I wanted to know if I have the spelling of Mr. Smith's name right. Then I gave her a few details.
She: Can you hold, please?
Now, I'm not quite sure what happened next. Maybe Mr. Smith really did think I somehow had the resources to go head to head with a giant Yugoslavian company. Or maybe he was just tired of being sued that day. In any case, the next voice I heard was that of the warranty guy, who was suddenly quite obsequious.
Yes, he said. Yes, of course they'd fix my car. Yes, the warranty would fully cover it. Yes, yes, yes.
I traded the little yellow car in not long after I got it back from the repair shop. And frankly, I seldom think about it except when the subject rolls around to crazy automotive experiences and really bad cars.
Then I'm kind of proud.
Because whenever I hear other guys talk about how bad their baddest car was, I know this undeniable fact is true.
Mine was worse.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Ten years after

We were taking an early afternoon beach break on December 31st, when she turned to me with a funny kind of smile.
"Do you remember another time we walked the beach on New Year's Eve?"
Now, I'm not ordinarily a time-and-date kinda guy, figuring, I guess, that if you can remember the big ones, like April 15th, her birthday and your wedding anniversary, you'll know just about enough to stay out of jail, and out of trouble, too. So I admit, it took me a minute to figure out just what she was talking about.
And then I remembered.
It was ten years before, while on a much-anticipated wintertime visit to the Carolina shore, that I first displayed some weird symptoms that annoyed me and alarmed her enough to trigger a doctor's appointment when we returned to Illinois. It's an odd sort of memory, because, on one hand, we had a wonderful time with a pair of our dearest friends. But there was also an strange sense of foreboding that was sort of rattling around in the back of my mind that week. Something was wrong. I just didn't know how wrong it was.
Turns out, I had prostate cancer. Like most guys, I had understood that kind of cancer to be slow-growing and almost benign.
Like most guys, I was mistaken.
While it is true that many men contract a form of the disease that is a sort of passive plague, so to speak, there's also a version that is aggressive and quick to grow and spread in a life-threatening fashion.
That's the kind I had.
What happened next has, surprisingly, grown sort of dim in my memory, but I do know there were several surgeries and a quick, scary recurrence of the cancer, plus extensive radiation and drug therapies that left me anemic and wondering if I had been hit by a bus. Luckily for me, I was also the recipient of an overwhelming outpouring of love, prayers, patience, humor, faith and hope from family, friends and absolute strangers. So, It is no wonder to me that after a few years my cancer was declared undetectable and I was officially in remission.
I still am. And if the after-effects of the disease and its treatments still occasionally make me wonder which tree I fell out of, hey, at least I'm still around to complain about it.
The sun was warm on my face as I pondered her sudden memory. Offshore, we had seen a leaping pod of dolphins minutes before, while waves lapped gently onto the low-tide shore.  I thought about the years that had passed, and the wonderful things I had been allowed to live for. Like the times we get to spend together traveling and enjoying family, friends, people and places. Or when both of our sons fell in love with smart, pretty girls who love them back. And, of course, there's the astonishing sensation that occurs when someone calls you "grandpa."
Heck, I even found this job along the way.
Fact is, what could have been the worst time of my life--and, perhaps the end of it, altogether--has gently turned into a sweet season of unceasing joy. And that's my hope for all who fight the good fight against cancer and other challenges.
Or, at least, that's how I see it.
Ten years after.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A new look at some old news

Even when I'm on temporary assignment over a thousand miles away, I do my best to stay in touch with the sweet little slice of midwestern pie that I call my hometown. We share tidbits with friends and neighbors, including the friendly, down-the-street cat wrangler, who makes sure the recalcitrant housecat named Max is well-fed and reasonably content (more about this later.) I'm also a frequent reader of both the Star Courier and the weekly Galva News in their online and Facebook versions, plus I even subscribe to a cyber-gadget called a Google News Alert that is suppose to let me know when either Galva or Kewanee are mentioned in the media.
Suffice it to say, neither The City of Go nor The Hog Capital of the World make too many international headlines, but I keep looking, and am often rewarded with news and information that I might have otherwise missed. One such piece of info that came my way recently involved one of my favorite places, the Galva Public Library.
It seems that the venerable 102-year-old institution has made another giant leap into the digital universe by scanning their microfilmed collection of 132 years of Galva newspapers and posting them on their website
What? Wow! Really? Cool!
If you are, like me, an ardent fancier of local history, or even if you just like the idea of being able to take a gander at a page from the past that somehow trips your trigger, the ability to quickly search--by name or subject--for a news story from the Galva News and its predecessors, the Galva Semi-Weekly News, The Galva Standard and The Galva Weekly News, without the eye-wrenching experience of wheeling through miles of microfilm, is a true example of a way technology really can make life better. Plus, you can narrow your investigation by year or month, which makes finding things like your great-grandfather's obituary, your mother's class picture or even that halcyon day you finally made the Galva High School honor roll simple searches, indeed.
According to Library Director Melody Anderson, there were several options for making the newspaper archives more user-friendly, but digitizing seemed like the best one, mainly due to the indexing feature that allows name/subject searching, and the fact that patrons would have the ability to conduct their searches from home. Or even from North Carolina.
Once I discovered the new tool, my spouse's comments quickly evolved from "What are you looking at?" to "You know, you're going to have to take a break to eat sometime" in short order.
I was hooked. But, who could blame me? I admit, it can almost be a little unsettling to see both your family's highest points and lowest moments put down in black and white, but for the most part, I really like the way those back-in-time news stories and ads have the effect of making dusty, sepia-toned photographs come to life and old stories come really true at last.
I saw pictures of my brother with both a football and a raku pot, and my sister as a homecoming queen and a new bride (not at the same time, thankfully.) I read the sad story of my paternal grandfather's sudden death when my dad was just 13 years old, and the depressing series of ads and stories regarding my mom's father's forced going-out-of-business sale during the great depression. But I learned more interesting things about both men than I had ever known before, things that made me realize that I truly am an apple that did not fall too far from the family tree.
I even stumbled on a news-to-me story about a vacation trip my mom and dad took together to Washington D.C. and other parts of the east coast nearly two years before they were married, an innocent, I'm sure, event that still must have garnered considerable interest and raised eyebrows back in 1936. I read about births, deaths, weddings and arrivals. And yes, I found my name on that 1968 honor roll.
I even dug back several decades to read about the birth of a new baby at Kewanee's St. Francis Hospital. His name was John, and he was the son of Keith and Alice Sloan of Galva.
Hard to believe, but the story wasn't even on the front page.
So, what's new with Max?
Frequent readers of my column may remember that Max is my cat. I speak of him once in awhile, but too often, it's in tales that include incidents of calf-biting, hand scratching, fish-breathed face-purring and midnight door-hanging that make it clear why his full name has been Mad Max ever since he made his arrival on our front porch as a scruffy, feral, park-born kitten on the Fourth of July several years ago. Max has never really given up his wilder instincts, which is the reason his invitation to join us as a traveling cat had to be regretfully withdrawn. Luckily for him, he has friends of his own, including Shannon from down the street, who has generously agreed to walk over daily to provide him with his daily grub and a modicum of companionship. Eventually, he got it through his pea-brain that she might have more to offer than a helping of LIttle Frisky's Dead Carp Delight and a scratch behind the ears, and began following her home, where he lounged on her porch and occasionally lined up with her own pets when it was time to tie on the feed bag. I don't know if it was the recent rash of rugged winter weather or just a sudden burst of unexpected intelligence on his part, but we got some startling news from Shannon during a recent phone call.
"Max has moved in," she said, which was surprising, indeed, when you consider his general aggressive resistance to anything resembling domestication. But it got even more amazing when she sent a picture of the mighty Mad Max contentedly  stretched out on her bed, wearing a cat-sized, cape-like garment made of pink, knitted wool.
Who knew? I just wonder if he'll bother speaking to me at all the next time he sees me.