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Tag: liberty

Malfunction indicators: Despite them, the Acemobile lives on to drive another year


It’s not up there with losing a family member, or a dog, but the the thought of losing a car — inanimate as it may be — can sometimes be a little painful, too.

This year, as the time came up for a state inspection, my red 2005 Jeep Liberty — best known as the Acemobile, and filled with memories from the last 13 years — things were not looking good.

The engine light, aka the check engine light, or the malfunction indicator light, would not go off.

That’s been a problem, off an on, for years now. It comes on. I generally ignore it. It goes away. Fortunately, it never happened at inspection time, but this time it did — and it stayed on.

Decades ago, the check engine light was just that — a warning that you should check the engine. Now though it serves as the beacon for the automobile’s entire computer system, and it could be a sign that virtually anything is wrong.

Absolutely, it is a bit of a scam. The light goes on. You take it in for an expensive diagnostic test, meaning they hook your car’s computer up to yet another computer, and it spits out some vague information about where problem area might be.

As with doctors and their testing machines, guesswork is still involved, and often a long process of eliminating other possibilities. At least with human health problems, though, you can go on with life, coping with your ailment until, just maybe, it gets figured out.

It’s a good thing humans don’t have to pass inspection to hang around, and probably a good thing (given they are not all that reliable) that we don’t have malfunction indicator lights.

In North Carolina, you can’t pass an inspection when your engine light is on. You can unhook a battery cable, which resets the car’s computer and makes the light go off for a while, but that doesn’t fool them. They know when it’s resetting.

Having until the end of September to get the inspection, I took it in at the very beginning of the month. They ran the diagnostic test, found some alleged problems, replaced some parts and a couple of tires, handed me a bill for more than $800 and told me to take it home and drive it until the computer reset.

When the computer reset, the light came back on.

By then I was already worrying about investing too much in an old car that might not even be fixable. Virtually everyone I spoke to about my car trouble said sell it and get a new one.

I couldn’t.

I took it back to the same place and they looked at it again. They believed they pinpointed a problem, but it was not the sort they could address. They thought that, somewhere in the wire that ran from my speed sensor (one of the parts they replaced) to the speedometer, there was a short.

Herein lies one of the ironies, or at least it struck me that way:

You are not required to have a working speedometer to pass inspection in North Carolina. But you are required to have that check engine light off.

So even though my light was on due solely to the speedometer issue, they could not pass it.

At this point, I am thinking a well-placed blow with an ice pick, right into the bulb, might be the answer. Instead, at the suggestion of the mechanic, I took it to another garage that specialized in electrical matters.

I explained to two people there what the first garage thought the problem was and handed over all the paperwork.

The next morning I got a call informing me I needed a new power train control module; the price $1,990. I asked how they knew that. They said because the computer said so. I asked about the faulty wire issue that had been diagnosed earlier. They said all they know is what the computer is saying.

I got a little angry. I tried to understand the situation, but face it: Most of us do not understand what computers are saying, or, even more difficult, what humans are saying that computers are saying.

Again, true of doctors and true of car mechanics.

I asked, again, about the wiring problem that had already been diagnosed, and whether they had ruled that out as an issue. They insisted I needed the module, which had to be paid for by me before they ordered it.

I debated again, but only briefly, getting rid of the car.

And I decided the memories were worth the $3,000 I was about to put into the car with 108,500 miles on it.

For one year, Ace and I lived in the Jeep, more or less, while traveling across America. The Acemobile was my Rocinante, the name John Steinbeck gave his camper during Travels with Charley — taken from the name of the horse Don Quixote rode.

The horse — like him, like Steinbeck, maybe a little like me — was awkward, past his prime, and trying to recapture something he may or may not have had in the first place.

All the many trips I took with my son, Joe, also sprang to mind — from warming breakfast sandwiches on the dashboard defroster on a cold morning fishing trip to meandering through Texas on a ride from Arizona to Alabama, or was it Mississippi?

I lost Ace a couple of years ago. I lost my son a couple of months ago. In recent years, I’ve also lost my mother, my father, and to top it all off, a kidney.

I honestly just couldn’t stand, stomach or tolerate another loss.

So my wallet and I headed down to the second garage to pay for the module. When I walked in they told me that I was right about the wiring issue. I did not need the module after all. They just needed to replace that wire.

The next day I picked it up, paying another $500-something, and took it directly back to the first garage. It passed inspection. I was so grateful that I instructed them to fix two other problems — the hydraulic bars that keep the hood up when opened and the hydraulic bars that keep the back window open.

Maybe I was tired of getting bonked in the head by both. Maybe I was showing my car a little love. Maybe I was learning a lesson about treasuring and caring for what you have.

I picked my car up Wednesday.

When Hurricane Florence comes my way, probably Friday, my car will be parked far away from any trees that might fall on it.

The Acemobile lives!

(Photos by John Woestendiek, from Travels with Ace)

Should a cookie-cutter neighborhood be restricted to cookie-cutter dogs?

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The developer of a neighborhood of modern, look-alike, cookie-cutter homes in Lexington, Ky., apparently wants to also define the breeds of dogs that can live there — or at least stipulate what breeds cannot.

That’s not all that rare nowadays, but the company managing McConnell’s Trace is casting a pretty broad net when it calls for banning 11 breeds of dog it deems “dangerous.”

If you read this website, you already know who I think the dangerous ones are in this scenario.

It’s not the German Shepherds, or the Rottweilers, or the mastiffs, or the Doberman Pinschers, or the pit bulls, or the huskies, or the malamutes, or the chows, or the Great Danes, or the St. Bernards or the Akitas.

It’s the developers, property management companies, and/or homeowner’s associationsthat decide breed bans are necessary to maintain peace, sanctity and low insurance premiums — and then go about enforcing their ill-informed rules with dictatorial zeal.

They are the far bigger threat so society.

In a nation so concerned about everybody’s Constitutional rights, and protecting individual liberties, it’s amazing how much power such groups can exert over how we live, and that they get away with it.

Sometimes it is done by the developers who, rather than just build houses, want to impose a set of rules on the community that will last through perpetuity. They do this by establishing “deed restrictions,” stipulating what a homeowner can and cannot do on the property.

Sometimes it’s property management companies that, while collecting a monthly free from homeowners, also issue edicts. Seeing liability insurance premiums rise, for example, they might decide to ban a breed, or two, or 11, of dog. The latest correspondence I received from mine informed homeowners that any alterations to the way grounds crews have laid down pine needles around their houses (it’s a southern thing) “will not be tolerated.”

Sometimes it’s the homeowner’s association, which generally means its board of directors.

All can tend to become little fiefdoms, dispensing rule after rule, threat after threat, warning after warning. When pressed for answers, when asked for reasons, they get vague about who is responsible for what, and pass the buck.

In the Lexington situation, homeowners in McConnell’s Trace were sent letters by the neighborhood developer detailing a reported change in an existing dog restriction, which previously referred only to unspecified “aggressive breeds.”

At least that’s what Josh McCurn, president of the area’s neighborhood association, told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Developer Dennis Anderson said Monday that Anderson Communities has been prohibiting the 11 dog breeds since 2006. Deed restrictions signed since then have included the prohibited list of breeds, he said.

“We want a mother and her child to feel safe when walking to the mailbox or hiking on the Town Branch Trail,” Anderson said in an email. “We want McConnell’s Trace to be the safest place to raise a family.”

Anderson sent the Herald-Leader a copy of deed restrictions dated in 2006 that lists the 11 restricted breeds.

The letter sent out last week to homeowners, however, stated “restrictions are now amended to include a complete list of prohibited breeds.”

Some homeowners said they never were provided a copy of deed restrictions when they moved in. One said, though he bought his home just over a year ago, he received the 2001 list of deed restrictions.

So it’s entirely possible, given how these places operate, that the developer’s attorney was the only one who actually had a copy of these restrictions he says have been in place for more than 10 years.

The letter said homeowners who already have a dog that belongs to one of the listed breeds can keep their dog.

“Please note, however, that all future pets must meet the breed requirements.”

Residents in the neighborhood organized an emergency meeting for 6:30 p.m. Friday to discuss the restrictions. It will be held at Masterson Station Park shelter #3 and will be open to the public.

Given the meeting is being held outside the neighborhood, I’m assuming dogs of all breeds are welcome.

Liberty brings home a leg (human)


It’s probably the last thing you want the dog to drag in.

Cheryl Flowers’ dog, Liberty, after a solo outing in the woods, returned to her home in Washington state with a human leg, dropping it next to the backyard trampoline.

“She drug a human leg into the yard. And I called police,” Flowers told CBS affiliate KIRO.

The dog’s discovery of the left leg and foot of a human led to a search Saturday on the Nisqually reservation by the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office.

A search of the immediate area did not turn up additional remains before it turned dark Saturday. But on Sunday, with help from search dogs and volunteers, additional remains were found, the sheriff’s office said.

Officials said the age, race and gender aren’t known, and they have yet to confirm any foul play was involved.

The coroner’s office confirmed the remains to be human, and to include a rib cage, pelvis and skull.

If only I could read his mind …

While I feel pretty attuned to my dog – though nowhere near as attuned as he is to me – there have been times, lots of times, during our seven months of traveling that I’ve wondered what he really thinks of it all.

We’ve been on the go since the end of May, not staying anywhere, until our most recent stop, for longer than two or three days. More often, it has been a new Motel 6, or similarly priced lodgings, every night, followed by four, five or six hours of drive time, then landing in a new place, with new smells, which must be sniffed out and, of course, peed on.

By the time we’re done, in another week, we will have traveled over 22,000 miles, he will have peed on 31 states (and Canada) and we will have crossed the country twice in our red Jeep Liberty.

And he will have, hundreds of times, looked up at me with those big brown eyes, which are so highly expressive.

If only I knew what they were expressing.

Ace in May in North Carolina

The back of my Jeep, which once meant he was heading on an outing, has become — other than me, and dinner — one of the few constants in his life of late. It, more than any place, is home, and he still jumps in it excitedly.

During our four weeks of sitting still in Arizona, he still waits to jump in the car. Is it  conditioning, or is he truly eager to go; and, if the latter, is it because he has come to love the road, or that he wants to finally get the hell home?

Is he enjoying the adventure, or, irony of ironies, does he find the Liberty confining?

 While Ace seems to have adapted wonderfully to the new routine – or lack of one – and shows no visible signs of being unhappy, I still wonder if not being rooted, not having one place to call home, is bothering him.

Ace in June in Alabama

Does he find being a vagabond liberating, as I – most of the time – do, or is he longing for a place of his own, an end to the travels, a return to the daily routine? Dogs do seem to love their routines.

His tail has remained curled most of the time, and that has always been the most obvious barometer of his mood.

But there are times I look at him, when he’s lying with his head on his paws that I wonder: Is he sad, is he depressed, or is he just lying with his head on his paws?

It’s important for me to know, because this trip, in more ways than one, is about him.

In addition to having nothing better to do, thinking it might be fun to travel across America, documenting our daily exploits and seeking out dog stories — to put together a “Travels With Charley” for modern times, only a more dog-centric version — this journey was also sparked by a feeling I was left with after writing my first book, “DOG, INC.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend.”

Ace in July, outside Amarillo

After researching the often incredible lengths bereaved pet owners go to when their dogs get sick and die, including that most high tech length of all – cloning – it struck me, in what is likely neither a deep nor original thought, that we humans could, and should, do a better job of savoring our loved ones (of all species) while they’re still around. Maybe then, rather than prolonged and paralyzing grief, we could, knowing we had fully celebrated their lives, better accept their deaths.

Ace in August, at the beach in North Carolina

I don’t really know if that would lessen the pain of a loved one’s departure. It could, for all I know, only make it worse. But that’s not the point. The point is we humans, as the song goes, “don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” that we take things for granted – not just unpaved paradises, but our parents, our planet, our friends and our dogs.

And while I’m as guilty as anybody on the parents and friends part, I resolved – after writing about how people go so far as to “stuff,” mummify and freeze dry their deceased pets, or pay $100,000 to produce a genetic replica through cloning – that Ace would be appreciated. In life.

In September, aboard a sailboat we slept on in Baltimore

That doesn’t mean spoiled and pampered — that’s entirely different. But I made a promise to myself to fully enjoy my dog — to, if it’s not too precious a word, treasure him (not that I didn’t already) — in our relatively brief time together. (Ace, who came into my life when he was 6 months old, is going on 7 years now, and being a big dog, will be lucky to reach the teens.)

Ace at Niagara Falls in October

I saw the trip, rightly or wrongly, as a way to do that – to take the time we shared beyond the routine of coming home from work, walking to the park, eating dinner and snuggling in front of the TV — though, again, for all I know, perhaps that was the life that Ace really preferred.

If, as I suspect, our dogs reflect our moods, then doing what makes me happiest, I reasoned, would make him happiest – especially given the fact that we’d be doing it together — and probably nothing makes me happier, other than Ace laying his head on my belly, than traveling, writing, seeing new things, and meeting new people.

So, even though finances didn’t really permit it, with an assist from my 401K and unemployment benefits, we set off on this journey, not being sure where it would lead, how long it might last, or what, other than some stories to share, it might result in.

In November, on the coast of Oregon

At first, I planned for three months on the road. When that was done, we kept going, heading to the former home of John Steinbeck on Long Island and, on the same day he left 50 years earlier, starting again, roughly following the same route the author took in “Travels With Charley.” That took another three months.

Now, we’re preparing to head back east – we’re still not sure where home is, but Baltimore will do for now. We’ll be sticking to interstate highways to make better time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this trip, it’s that schedules and itineraries – and particularly interstate highways — make traveling, at once, more stressful and boring. They snuff out any opportunities for spontaneity. You miss out on the character, and characters, America has to offer.

But as we “make good time,” I’ll be a little less stressed about whether Ace is enjoying the ride.

Ace and friends in December, Cave Creek, Arizona

Despite all the time I pondered the questions; despite my long looks into his soulful brown eyes attempting to gauge his emotions; despite some one-sided conversations where I’ve attempted to explain things, with his only response being giving me his paw; despite priding myself on having some dog empathy, I’d been unable to figure out the answer to that question: Is Ace having fun?

So, last week, before I left Cave Creek, I sought a second opinion.

It was Ace’s second visit with an animal communicator – the first having come when I was researching a series I wrote for the Baltimore Sun about trying to uncover the past of my mysterious new dog, adopted from what used to be the city pound.

What was he, and where did he come from? For the answers then I turned to DNA testing (which showed him to be a Rottweiler-Chow-Akita), to legwork (walking the streets of the neighborhood where records showed he’d been picked up as a stray) and, finally, to an animal communicator. Perhaps the answers, I figured, could come straight from the source: Ace.

I’m neither a big believer, or for that matter a big disbeliever, in those that claim animals talk to them, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to listen – to them, or, if possible, to Ace. 

Not long after parking myself in Cave Creek, Arizona, I visited For Goodness Sake, a thrift store that donates part of its profits to animal rescue organizations. At a weekend fund-raising event there, I entered a raffle for a session with a local animal communicator, and I won.

Last week, Ace and I sat down with Debbie Johnstone of Listen 2 Animals.

And according to her, Ace had lots to say.

(Tomorrow: Ace talks)