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Tag: sentimental

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)

My life in a box

It occured to me, when I heaved open the heavy metal door to the storage unit that has held most of my possessions for the past eight months — unveiling disarray, peppered with mouse poop — that what was revealed wasn’t just a metaphor for my life.

It was my life — up to now — in a box.

Virtually all my worldly possessions, except my dog — and, though he’s worldly, I don’t really possess him — are in there.

Cash value? Not much. Emotional value? Depends on which box you open. Overall importance? Given the fact that I didn’t miss any of it in eight months, next to nothing.

But when I moved out of my house in Baltimore to hit the road with my dog last May, I packed it all, and hauled it all, and stacked it all and secured it all with big strong lock.

Because, for me to be truly liberated, all my stuff had to be incarcerated.

We in the free world are slaves to our stuff. We are slaves to our jobs, which allow us to get more stuff. We are slaves to our mortgages, and utility bills, and the Internet and other technology we grow to depend on. Most of all, we are slaves to health insurance.

That, maybe more than anything — especially for those 40 and above — is why we stay in jobs we hate. Sometimes we hate them so much it makes us physically sick — especially when our workload quadruples so that stockholders can get a second yacht. But that’s OK because we have health insurance.

I gave up my regular job — with a salary and health insurance — more than two years ago at the age of 55. It was scary then. It’s scary now.

Unable to afford both health insurance and housing, I’ve opted to go with an alternative health plan whose protocol will be followed in the event of serious illness. It’s known as CIACAD (Crawl Into A Corner And Die.)

For my dental plan, I’ve chosen LTARAFO (Let Them All Rot And Fall Out).

For vision — it being more important than to me than life or chewing — I’ll likely pay my own way, as opposed to going with SAGAMG (Shutup And Get A Magnifying Glass).

I need to check into all these health insurance reforms, but my guess is whatever Obama-care benefits might apply to me probably, with my luck, are scheduled to kick in the day after I die.

But this post isn’t about death. It’s about life, and how we choose to live it — and how that, for most of us, is in a really big box, divided up into smaller boxes, some with plumbing and appliances, and all, of course, filled with stuff.

All my stuff, when it wasn’t scattered from room to room, fit nicely into a one-car-garage-sized storage compartment.

I started off loading it in a very organized manner, but running out of time, sped up to the point that much of it isn’t organized at all. Some boxes are labeled; others are mysteries. There are many boxes that say books, but there are only four or five books I need right now, and going through 20 boxes to find them — all of course trapped back at the very rear of the unit — would be a real time absorber.

So how is my storage unit a metaphor for my life?

First, it’s in disarray. I’m guessing an x-ray of my brain would look a lot like the inside of my storage unit. My stuff is not organized, not immediately locatable. My stuff is in limbo. My stuff, like me, has no idea where it will be a year from now.

There are some treasures in there. A baseball with Willie Mays’ autograph; photos of my son arriving from Korea; the goofy white cap I had to wear at my first job, selling burgers; my Pulitzer Prize (it’s just a sheet of paper); yellowed newspaper stories written nearly 35-plus years ago.

There are four or five boxes of strictly sentimental value. They contain memories. But I don’t remember where they are.

The stuff I need — certain books, forks, long underwear — are all buried somewhere at the back of the unit. The stuff I have no use for right now — my bicycle, golf clubs, tennis rackets — are all right at the front.

Part of me thinks it would be nice to have a place of my own, where I could unpack my stuff and organize it and live amongst it. Part of me thinks that would again make me a slave to my stuff, and all those previously mentioned other things that tie us down.

Here is what I am wondering — after the eight months Ace and I lived in a boat, trailer, tent, my car, cheap motel rooms, and the homes of friends and strangers as we traversed the U.S.:

Is what’s stuffed in that big metal box my life? Or, is my life over there, down that road winding into the horizon?

Do we treasure our past and present to the point that we shortchange our future? Is it possible, for those eking out an existence — as opposed to rolling in money — to have both security and adventure? Is it possible to properly nourish relationships with friends and family — in more than a superficial Facebook kind of way — without living right where they live?

In a way, it should be less complicated for me, having no “partner,” except for my big fuzzy one; having not just an empty nest, but no nest at all.

I should be able to figure this out.

If you’re wondering who that woman is in the back of the storage unit, that’s my beer sign lady — a cardboard cut-out, who, like much of my furniture, I rescued from a Dumpster. I picked her up last winter, but, in the months that followed, found her a bit one-dimensional and not at all good at conversation.

When I moved my stuff into storage, I assigned her the task of watching over it all.

She did a lousy job.

Somehow, all my (mostly) neatly stacked boxes started leaning, and teetering, and falling. She did nothing, and apparently wasn’t much help in scaring visiting mice away.

I think, when I finally do locate myself, I will get rid of her.

The bigger decision, though, is where I belong — warmly ensconced in a home of my own, or among the realm of vagabonds, like those RV nomads who kept their wanderlust in check until retirement kicked in and have been happily rolling along ever since?

When the road calls again, and I’m sure it will, will I answer?