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A New Battery for my Prius

April 9, 2019

At the end of this alley they sold me a hybrid battery.

What do you do when the hybrid battery on your Prius dies? I didn’t know because I’d never fully appreciated the terminal nature of losing your hybrid battery. The battery is the car. When one of them goes, you can forget about what’s left. And replacing the battery is a big investment I was hoping to put off.

After the battery conked out I was driving on only the gas engine. The car was sluggish to put it politely. It actually slowed to a crawl sometimes, and I’d soon have a deep stack of traffic stuck behind me on fast-moving single-lane streets when I couldn’t push the speed above 30 MPH. One time, I was literally passed by a cement truck going uphill.

But I had an inside source on the battery problem. Pat was a friend of my mom because she was a soloist in the Methodist church choir who also sang with the San Diego Opera. But I digress. More to the point, she drove for Uber and Lift and she had a Prius that had 290,000 miles on it.

She never had to replace her battery but was dreading the prospect, so she took tremendous strides to find the best possible deals. I texted her on the subject and her responses began pouring in. The ratio was four texts from her to one of mine. She sent me web links to battery dealers from here and yon.

When I finally got on the phone with her she told me she had just got off the phone with a dealer in Pennsylvania who had a crazy low price for a new battery… about $1500, if I remember right. No, they said, we wouldn’t mail one out to San Diego.

Obviously, she was hard to get off the phone once she got onto the subject. But she gave me a lot more confidence that I’d know a good deal when I saw it.

In the end, I called a local place called hybridbatterysandiego.com. They had a pretty slick website and a guy picked up the phone the first time I called. But when I found their location, it didn’t look like any location at all. In fact, I couldn’t see the address they claimed was theirs, located on a block in Spring Valley that was a one of those commercial graveyards of slap-dash, low-rent businesses selling tires, wrecks and auto parts behind rusty gates.

I called the guy again, and he told me to find an alley next to a sign and go to the end of it. The guy was Chris, and he ran through the options real quick with me. And without giving it a lot of thought I told him to install a new one, not a reconditioned battery, though the reconditioned one would be less than half the price.

I got out of there for just under… well, never mind what I paid. If I paid too much I’m not going to tell the world. Anyrate, I have a new battery that will probably take me at least another 150K miles down the road. Let’s hope the rest of the car holds up that long.

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Estate Sale

March 20, 2019

The first I noticed there was something unusual going on at Bob and Jeanine’s house was when I saw a small crowd of middle-aged people standing in their driveway first thing Saturday morning. I should have guessed: An estate sale.

Not a garage sale, mind you, where people try to unload the crap they don’t want anymore. But an estate sale, where everything in the household is up for sale, including a lot of valuable possessions.

Bob and Jeanine were already an old couple when I moved into the neighborhood nine years ago. Now, Bob is dead and Jeanine is in an assisted living residence. They were both native San Diegans. Jeanine went to Hoover High School and Bob attended San Diego High. Their high school yearbooks were among the things for sale.

I bought Bob’s 1960 yearbook that was filled with signatures of favorite teachers and best wishes written in neat cursive and signed by students. The school was racially mixed even back then, with many black faces shown in the clubs and sports teams. You saw black and white photos of the members of the school’s Hilltop Choir, donning concert robes. The Thespian club dramatically posed. The girls in the Pom Pom Corps and Homecoming Queen Alice Cruz. They had a Russian Club, despite the Cold War.

Bob owned five bags of golf clubs. At the end of the sale none had been sold. He had a bunch of Minolta film cameras. Jeanine had a small collection of sacred art, some of which she bought on visits to Europe. I bought a small crucifix and a stylish bronze Last Supper print that I added to my own collection.

The biggest thing I bought was a mission-style loveseat that was only $38 by the last day of the sale. Nicholas and I carried it across the street and put it in our living room. A couple of estate sale veterans looked at it and said I should check for an emblem on the bottom to see if it was a Stickley. If so, it would be worth a couple thousand bucks, they said.

I did check, and there was a tag calling it a Gustav (Stickley’s first name) and saying it was delivered by Jerome’s, a local furniture store known for bargains, not arts and craft collectibles. OK… so it’s a Stickley knock-off, but still a nice bit of furnishing.

The loveseat has moved to my house.

I guess the best thing I saw was a picture of the lives led by two neighbors I would chat with on the curb outside but never really knew that well. I hope it’s OK, Bob, that I got your old high school yearbook, and I ended up with that loveseat.

 

Frontage Roads

December 31, 2018

The San Diego landscape is pocked with canyons and hollows that stop roads before they can connect more than few miles of a mesa top. That’s one reason why four-laners and freeways, that follow the bottoms of valleys, carry so much traffic. In fact, it can be hard to go any distance without travelling a freeway corridor.

This sucks for me, San Diego’s fearless bike commuter, because even I don’t have the balls to take a bike on Interstate 8. But thankfully I’ve discovered frontage roads.

It’s not much of a discovery because we all know of them. That’s where you end up when you take the Mission Road exit. They’re usually lined with suburban office buildings or stripmalls. Once you end up on one of these roads in a car you try to get off it as quick as possible.

But for a bike, they are a great way to go. Because cars avoid them, you rarely confront heavy dangerous traffic. You can move fast. They’re pretty flat and that reduces the physical stress. It only sucks when you have to cross a freeway to continue on the opposite frontage road, which means wading into roads full of cars that are bound for the freeway onramps.

The other day, I actually rode my bike all the way the Midway District for an appointment. It was about 12 miles. It took an hour and my underestimation of travel time made me 20 minutes late.  But hey… I got there. I traveled the I-8 corridor nearly the entire way and I didn’t feel like I had put myself in the hands of God. Thanks to the frontage road.

Making a place a good place to ride a bike takes time, and in San Diego it’s moving pretty goddamn slow. If gas remains cheap we may never get there. But I’m trying to do my bit. Cars have to see some bikes out there if we want them to think they don’t own the roads.

The Truth

December 29, 2018

I’m a journalist and twice I have spoken to academic classes about journalistic ethics. One was an ethics class, taught by the religion instructor at St. Augustine High School, and the other was journalism class at San Diego State.

In both places I offered a theory about truth… that thing reporters are supposed to be devoted to. I said truth is like God. St. Thomas Aquinas once told us, ‘We will never know what God is. We can only know that God is.’ We can know those constituents of the truth, which are facts. But we can never fully know the truth.

Truth and facts can be mean, ornery things because they ultimately defy all hopes and expectations. We want to believe what we believe, and we seek out the facts that support our philosophies. But that doesn’t add up to the truth.

And we must be devoted to truth. I have noticed this more than ever in the political age of Donald Trump, whose untruthfulness surpasses all other American politicians who have ever bent or manipulated the facts. There can be no democracy without a devotion to the truth. Dictatorships are built on the lies that suit the oppressors. Trump would feel very at home in that kind of government.

Mind you, the truth isn’t everything.

To say ‘All men are created equal’ might not, strictly speaking, be true. But it is a belief that’s vital to our democratic way of life, and conducting ourselves with that understanding is vital to keeping a just society. But even when we preserve a philosophy that unites us we can never lose track of the truth.

Human values may shift and evolve but they must be built on truth. Here’s what Cormac McCarthy said about the enduring nature of the subject in his book, No Country for Old Men.

I think that when the lies are all told and forgot the truth will be there yet. It dont move about from place to place and it don’t change from time to time. You cant corrupt it any more than you can salt salt. You cant corrupt it because that’s what it is.

But we will never entirely know what it is.

When I Cancelled my Subscription to the Paper

September 14, 2018

A couple of weeks ago, I canceled my daily newspaper. It was the San Diego Union Tribune. But it could have been any other paper in any other part of the country.

It was the paper that would land on my sidewalk or driveway in the morning. I’d never taken an evening paper. All my life, it seemed, I got those folded pages of newsprint that told me, every morning, what was important in the world. It divided the world into sections that gave me news that was local, national and international. It told me the latest sport scores and developments. Sports must be very important since a whole section of the paper was devoted to it.

My front walk when I don’t get a paper.

It gave me the funnies which my children actually read every Sunday for a while, until they got computers and smartphones and stopped looking at newspapers altogether.

I didn’t stop my subscription because I was  dissatisfied with the Union Tribune. It’s because it seemed more and more absurd to have a car drive by my house in the morning and throw a wad of paper at my doorstep with news that I already had, via the Internet. It seemed like a waste. It seemed like a custom that only continued thanks to the habits of people who were dying out.

I never really liked the business of reading a broadsheet newspaper. It was big and cumbersome. Holding it up for any length of time made my arms weary. Back in the old days the ink of the newsprint would leave black smudges on my fingers that I would  transfer to shirts and towels. It was little more than the weight of habit and custom that made me still read them.

But that weight of custom – the years of momentum that kept daily papers going – was a great gift to journalism. Nothing surpassed the daily paper as a bastion for factual reporting and for telling American citizens what they needed to know to live in a democracy. As the institution and the business model of the newspaper has faded away, nothing else has adequately replaced it, and we still don’t know if anything will.

After I cancelled my subscription to the U-T, a funny thing happened. They still deliver it to me on weekdays. I thought maybe my delivery man (there are no more paperboys) was confused. But now I wonder if maybe the U-T wants to keep delivering it to me to keep their circulation numbers up. Even though I’m not paying for the delivery, maybe it’s financially worth it to them to keep telling their advertisers that I’m looking through the pages of their paper.

And I do, and I will, as long as I keep getting it for free. I’ll still flip through it and make note of the headlines. If I land on a story that’s especially interesting I’ll read at least the first few paragraphs, if not the whole thing. I’ve been reading a daily newspaper for decades, and old habits die hard.

 

 

RAGBRAI 2018

August 2, 2018

The NPR & Groucho teams beside their new bus.

This year I rode on the Register’s Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) with the cycling teams from NPR – aka No Pie Refused – and Team Groucho, lead by the great Bill Danforth of Shenandoah, Iowa. This year the Des Moines Register drew a line beginning halfway up the state and ending likewise, ranging from the little town of Anawa and ending in Davenport, with overnight stops at five towns in between. Some were places I knew very well, like Ames and Iowa City. Here are some highlights:

Teams Groucho and NPR get a new bus that plays the All Things Considered theme. With a disclaimer on the side of the bus, NPR riders assure listeners that no donations have gone pay for its purchase, decoration, fueling or upkeep.

The weather is so good it’s weird. There was virtually no rain during our cycling travels and by the end of the week we were seeing high temperatures in the upper 70’s. In July. In Iowa. In Jefferson I had a pleasure of being on a big open porch on a two-story home and seeing a sudden nighttime downpour blow into town and drench the neighborhood before moving on. All of us remained dry and well entertained as we sat in our chairs and watched the rain fall.

Disclaimer on bus.

For the first time I hear the band Hairball, as they performed Tuesday night in Jefferson. Hairball is a cover band playing 1980’s big-hair heavy metal tunes. Their act spans the gap between celebration and satire. They’re not bad, and they’re on stage with plenty of flashing lights, smoke and shooting flames.

My bike performs well but the gears and crankshaft started making sounds that make it seem that something’s amiss. I take my bike to roadside mechanics thrice with no effect. I finally decide to stop listening.

Don Gonyea and Richard Harris of the NPR team.

Team Groucho finds homes for us in RAGBRAI overnight towns where owners are willing to let us camp on their floors, use their showers and laundry machines. The custom is for all bike team members to offer a small and cheap gift to the host with a story to go with it. My gift – the Chico Bag – went over pretty well, and my story got some laughs. The Chico Bag is a tiny bag that’s stuffed with a bigger bag that emerges when you turn the small bag inside out. It came from the KPBS membership department. Thank you for your support! Of RAGBRAI, in this case.

Bill and Betsy Danforth, father and daughter, of Team Groucho.

We overnighted in Ames where my wife went to high school and where her father taught at Iowa State, and lived until cancer took
him last November. We got to ride our bikes into Cyclone Stadium and do a lap around the football field. That evening we hung out by a brewery outside of town where donors & listeners of Iowa Public Radio showed up to meet the NPR types. My wife’s stepmom
Rae showed up. We stayed in a neighborhood with big old two-story houses that were surrounded and shaded by strapping mature trees.

Cycling into Cyclone Stadium in Ames

In Newton we stay with an old couple. He’s a retired Episcopal Priest and she’s a former school teacher and a full-blooded Ojibwe Indian. Very proud of her heritage, she has a room full of framed artifacts from her culture, including a beaded women’s jacket, a pair of moccasins, and a photo of her parents harvesting wild rice on the White Earth Reservation. She captures us with her stories. Especially one she tells of her grandmother dying, and what grandma tells her and asks of her as she goes. A lot of us, sitting in the living room in silent attention, shed a tear. They also had a bottle of Dewars scotch, and I was very glad to have some.

Following the unprecedented NPR victory in pie-eating contest. Des Moines Register team is on the left.

NPR wins the pie-eating contest for the first time! The annual relay race between NPR and the Des Moines Register (one pie slice per person) has ended in disappointment for our side the two previous times we’ve done it. In this year’s contest, NPR gets a slow start but makes up for lost ground as our anchor team catches up and finally surpasses the competition. Our final eater, the diminutive Camila Domonoske, puts away her pie and opens wide her mouth to show the referee it’s all gone and NPR wins by an eyelash.

Camila done, at Mississippi River

Central Iowa is the part of the state where I grew up. There were plenty of hills to climb but usually a tail wind to give you a welcome push. I saw my stepmother in law in Ames. I ran into two sisters from my hometown that I hadn’t seen in 40 years. I stayed with my brother in the Quad Cities after rolling into Davenport and dipping a wheel in the Mississippi River at the end of the ride. More than sixty miles a day for seven days made for another RAGBRAI. I’ll be back. Maybe not next year but I’ll be back.

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Goodbye St. Didacus

June 15, 2018

It’s been 13 years since my wife Karen and I took our 5 year-old son Nicholas to meet Elizabeth La Costa, the principal of St. Didacus Parish School. Since then we’ve been going to teacher meetings, volunteering to maintain the library, writing the alumni newsletter, attending fundraising events and watching our kids grow up.

On Tuesday Karen picked up our 8th grade daughter Sophie at St. Didacus, making it the last day we would ever pick up a child there after school. Next year Sophie goes to high school. We had 13 years of investing memories in this place, with its plaster walls and tile floors, its blacktop playground, its long hallway that led from the south-end doorway to a school auditorium with the most uncomfortable seating I’ve ever known.

Sophie on her last day of school.

I grew up going to public schools so I suffered some culture shock when I first saw the Catholic school kids praying at a morning assembly. But before long I was charmed to hear the voices of children praying for everything from endangered animals, to soldiers in Iraq to unborn babies. Most of all, I saw my awkward, vulnerable son – who had been mistreated by other kids in a preschool where the teachers did little about it – in a place where he was protected by compassionate teachers who enforced a strict regimen of rules.

St. Didacus had a caring attitude that we noticed from the beginning. It was something we didn’t really see in the other Catholic or public schools we visited. Over the years, we had complaints about the place. Like the teacher who couldn’t be bothered to work with our son, who was having trouble in computer class. But we also remember the teachers who loved him and sent him home with encouraging notes and took the extra time to help him work through his learning disabilities. The years spent educating our kids and supporting the school were years of hard work that formed a lasting bond between us and the K-12 school. Our relationship with the parish coincided with a personal journey of mine that solidified my religious faith.

Now, we are moving on to a different part of our life, with one kid in college. The other will go to a Catholic high school where – a St. Didacus teacher joked – all you had to do was throw the money over the fence and let the school do the rest. No more setting up for Fall Festival or cranking out alumni newsletters. It’ll be easier.

As 13 years have gone by, the classes at St.  Didacus have been getting smaller. Fewer kids means fewer tuition payments. It’s a trend at almost all parochial schools in the U.S. I sometimes wonder whether my kids will soon be among the few who can look back on attending a Catholic grade school where the tuition was cheap, the classrooms were filled with immigrant offspring and the schools were firmly planted in an urban neighborhood.

We have been part of the long, imperfect tradition of Catholic education. I know that not all memories of parochial schools are fond ones. But with one of them my family shared a worthy task and many years of love and toil. Saint Didacus school is a place we’ll never forget.