Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Bronze Medal at the Winter Olympics

Winter supposedly ends in a few minutes. I'm here to write its obituary.

It was the third-snowiest in Chicago history. And it doesn’t matter if you use the traditional measure (the duration of the winter solstice) or the meteorological one (the period between December first and the last day of February), it snowed a lot.

This near-record snowfall was accomplished without the benefit of a single blizzard. It was through a grinding, unrelenting, inch-by-inch accumulation that its bronze medal was won. Not only did it snow a lot, but it snowed on many days.

So many, many days.

And we at the Square Peg were made corpulent with delight.

And we shouldn't forget the cold. The winter just concluded was likewise the third-coldest in our history. It stands an Olympic-like three-tenths of a degree from the record low average of 18.3 degrees Fahrenheit posted in 1903/04. It is sobering to realize that for giant stretches of time, it was warmer in the freezer.

I am grateful I did not die while shoveling snow. This because owing to the bronze medal cold, much of the bronze medal snowfall was dry. To those luxuriating in blissful ignorance of such things, a heaping shovelful of dry snow weighs much, much less than does a heaping shovelful of wet snow.

So there’s that.

But I can’t summon similar gratitude over the 2,628 times I had to scrape ice off the windows of my car. Or sweep snow from it or remove the cement-like accumulation from the wheel wells and front and rear undercarriage. Nor am I dancing a jig over the 104 additional gallons of gas I burned at $3.79 per warming it up.

The layers and layers of clothing I was forced to don every time I went outdoors and then had to remove when I returned indoors also left me distinctly unenthused. Ditto the considerable irritation I experienced while buckling my shoulder harness and seat belt in an already narrow space made narrower by bulky winter clothing.

And what of the snow and howling wind that inevitably found the exposed flesh between the end of a jacket's sleeve and the top of a glove? Or that bit between a scarf and the northern terminus of a coat’s zipper? At wind chills below ten degrees, it may as well have been a knife at your jugular.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t shine a light (preferably an LED with fresh batteries) on the bane of all calcium-deficient human beings: falling.

I myself fell several times this winter. Fortunately, nothing broke. As shippers the world over have learned, it is difficult to break something wrapped like a Ming vase about to be offloaded by longshoremen.

(Which isn't to infer that I in any way, shape or form resemble a Ming vase. Actually, I look more like a Jin Dynasty ewer.)

But as scientists point out, we do adapt. There is such a thing as acclimatization. While the thought of a post-work stroll through an open parking lot in nineteen degree weather would have been horrific in September, last week it seemed (all things being relative) balmy.

Yes, it’s true. I sauntered to my car in an unzipped coat. Carrying my gloves instead of wearing them. At the risk of diminishing my robust display of acclimatization, I should add there was no wind chill.

Combined with the two occasions this month that have seen the thermometer register a positively tropical fifty degrees, and there is tangible proof that even permafrost can be rendered impermanent.

But the ice scraper isn’t going anywhere. Snow is predicted later in the week.

My obituary is premature.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

My Conflicted Love

I’ve always been a car nut. In fact, I could say “car” before I mastered the two-syllable complexities of “mama”. Fortunately, I was born to a mother who, gracious by nature, forgave my misaligned priorities.

Obviously, something about the rolling sculpture of metal, glass, chrome and rubber fascinated me.

The day I discovered I didn’t possess the math and engineering skills necessary to be a car designer was probably the worst of my youth. Then why had I endured the classroom ridicule of so many teachers as I resolutely attempted to translate the cars in my imagination to paper?

This infatuation subsequently ebbed and flowed over the years, as I (in turn) discovered pop music, sports and girls. But it was never far from the surface, and reemerged in my late-twenties as strong as ever. It became conflicted as I gradually became aware of the degree to which the automobile shaped and influenced the twentieth century.

Yet my love is an egalitarian one. It encompasses everything, from old to new and up market on down. From 1929 Duesenbergs to the new three-cylinder Ford Fiesta. To my way of thinking, the Honda Accord is every bit the marvel a dazzling, futuristic concept car is.

This because the Accord fulfills its purpose in a way few things in life ever do.

But despite the perfection of its utility, there aren’t very many people who lust for the Accord. It isn’t sexy. There is no exotic racing lineage. No cache. No status. It is merely the preferred appliance of the American soccer mom. For high-status sexy, you must look to Europe: England, Germany and Italy.

BMW, Bentley, Mercedes, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Porsche and Ferrari offer status and exclusivity to their owners. Attention. Sex appeal. Validation. Ownership inspires an I-have-one-and-you-don’t sense of superiority.

But it isn’t all hand-stitched leather and finely-calibrated engines.

While the rest of us look on longingly, the owner of a Porsche 911 must cough up three-hundred-dollars for an oil change. The eager buyer of the new Porsche 918 will lay out 6K for the extravagance of a heater. 26K for “upgraded” leather. And 63K for something called liquid metal paint.

Porsche extends to prospective buyers an additional opportunity to boost its year-end earnings via the Weissach Package. What the buyer gets for a jaw-dropping 84K is the deletion of three components from the car.

That’s right. Stuff is taken off the car. For eighty-four thousand dollars.

Check-off the Weissach Package box on your order form and your sound insulation, leather upholstery and a portion of the passenger-side cooling infrastructure is removed in the interest of reducing mass.

I have just one question: is it more to remove the “upgraded” leather?

The total weight loss amounts to 90 pounds. I hope Weight Watchers is taking note. You seeing this, Slim-Fast? That’s nine-hundred and thirty-three dollars a pound.

But when you’re dropping $845,000 on a car, what’s another 84 thou? Percentage-wise, it’s like adding a GPS unit and upgraded sound to your Camry or Jeep Grand Cherokee. No biggie. Right?

Manufacturers like Porsche know intimately how desperate the well-heeled are to display their well-heeledness. The well-to-do require ever more exclusive and outrageous product, the better to stay one step ahead of the Joneses.

And brands like Porsche and Bentley and Ferrari are only too happy to charge them for it.

For those of us on the other side of the glass, we can only laugh at their desperation. While many of us would like to give it to the one-percent, it is ironic that we have Porsche to do it for us.

In this, the Age of Diminished Expectations, it’s something.