Thursday, July 31, 2008

Feel Like A Million

When I was in the fourth grade at Central Elementary School in Kearney, Nebraska, our teachers ventured to help us grasp what a "million" was. The challenge was to collect a million bottle caps, piled into a big chickenwire cage in the school hallway. As I recall, the cage/dump was about ten feet square, and in two years we had a five foot deep pile, officially one million caps. So I have some feel for what a million is, although I still can't envision a town of 20,000 drinking a million bottles of anything.

But I can't grasp what's happening in Zimbabwe right now. They just issued a one-hundred billion dollar bill. (For reference, the United States doesn't even have a million dollar bill.)

By last Sunday, the new bill wasn't enough to buy a loaf of bread. That's because inflation in Zimbabwe is 2.2 million percent (officially) or 12 million percent (really). Either way, prices are doubling faster than I can type each word on this page. (I know what you're thinking: "So stop typing then!") One unexpected problem is that ATMs can't give out any money because the screens are too small for that many zeros.

I suppose the good news is that minimum wage must be around 25 million dollars an hour. Maybe you could go there, work an hour, send the money home to the U.S. and retire.

Gideon Gono, their central bank reserve governor, said he would introduce new measures in the coming days. His master plan is to "remove zeros." Gono says, "We will make sure those zeros that would come knocking on the Governor's window will not return." They'll just scratch zeros off everything, and call it good. And really, zero means nothing, three zeros is just triple-nothing, so lopping them off should be nothing, right? Actually, it seems like it could work, especially if you get to keep your old 100 billion dollar bills. That'd be sweet!

What brought it all home for me was that Zimbabwe nightclubs are canceling shows. Audiences stopping coming out after a 2000 percent increase in beer prices. I own a bar. A music venue, actually. Our admission to see great touring artists rarely breaks $5 measly bucks. Our drink prices are average, but our pours are especially generous. Really, the only bad thing about it is that we can't break a 100 billion dollar bill, so you might want to get change before coming.

As I sit here sipping a $3.50 local pint, I try to imagine what a $73 beer would taste like. No wait—in the time it took me to write this sentence, the Zimbabwe price would have gone up to $1,533. It better be good beer.

Follow up: I wrote the above on a Tuesday. In the following Thursday's paper I read that Zimbabwe indeed lopped zeros off its currency. Ten zeros, gone. That is, ten billion dollars is now one dollar.


Missing Inaction

I'm sorry this blog is late. I played hooky yesterday.

I consider myself reasonable adult, someone who is dutiful, who thrives on self-denial. But the truth is this: it takes just one friendly suggestion to push me into doing what I really want to do, and crack my steely inclination to do what I should be doing like a corn chip.

Playing hooky is so much more fun when you're not your own boss. As a kid it was cheating the school, my parents, the General Authority. Employed, it's like screwing The Man for those little daily hosings he gives you. Being self-employed gives you freedom to do what you want, but then there's no authority to defy. It's like cheating on a diet: indulgent, yes, but you know you'll pay later. What we need is a way to cheat on a diet and have our boss get fat for it.

It started around lunchtime. I accepted the offer of a Tom Collins, beverage of the month among my friends. "We're on vacation, right?" Well, she was on vacation. (Actually, she calls it "stay-cation," because her family isn't vacating.) She says, "Take us sailing."

It's warm and sunny and windy. Along with whiskers on kittens and warm woolen mittens, these are a few of my favorite thigns. My [sailing] mind can't [sailing] seem to concentrate [sailing] on much of [sailing] anything else anyway. My resolve to work relents with the crunch of a junebug under my shoe. I took the afternoon off.

In the mail yesterday I also received the missing part I ordered for my antique seltzer bottle, one of those big silver jugs filled with squirting soda water you saw in every Cary Grant movie as he made a cocktail. And like in every Cary Grant movie, I immediately tested it by squirting someone in the back of the head.

So yesterday was a pretty good day. Maybe I needn't worry to much about being an adult after all.

Now if I could [sailing] just get caught up [sailing] on my work to make up for [sailing] yesterday.

Impact Wrench

My biggest car crash wasn't even a crash. Or a car. I was on my motorcycle, as usual going well over the speed limit. (It is impossible to go the speed limit on a motorcycle.) The light turned green as I approached the intersection, and I zoomed along, happy that I didn't have to stop. The crossing car that was supposed to stop, didn't. In an instant my nice open lane turned into a two ton steel wall.

My memory is off because I went into shock afterwards, which is weird because I didn't really hit anything. I jumped right before the impact, flying in a slo-mo flip over the whole mess. I remember that time slowed way down. Normal sounds were almost absent. My bike folded in half as it smashed into the car's front wheelwell, but I didn't hear any of that. I do recall hearing The Blue Danube. I could see almost 360 degrees. Inside the car were three of my classmates, and I recognized all six eyes, opened so wide they almost touched each other. I looked down as I passed over the hood of the car and thought, "Hmmm, it needs painting." Eventually I landed on my feet on the other side of the car. I'm told I opened the driver's door, reached in and shook his hand, saying, "Nice driving, Tex," but I don't remember that part. I do remember that they lied to their dads and said the light was still green, and their insurance company didn't pay, and I had to fix my bike myself.

My next big crash wasn't mine. I saw skid tracks leaving the road, tearing deep mean troughs through the grass, then vanishing as the car went airborne over the ledge. There it was, down the hill near the lake, on its side, the top ripped off by a tree. In my daydreams I like to be a hero, but at that moment I froze, unable to go down and offer help. My heart beat so hard my ears rang, and my feet wouldn't budge. I finally crept down, terrified of what I'd see, but the car was empty. I hated myself for being so afraid, so slow.

Those memories came back today when I came upon an accident. It didn't look all that bad at first; one car rear-ended another. But as I approached, my feet became heavy again as I saw that the windshield was broken, and there were bits and splatters of gray and white matter dripping down all over the inside of the car.

It was because of all that self-hate all those years ago that I was able to approach the car; I was not going to be that yellow kid again. I opened the car door to an awful mess, but the girl inside was fine. An open cell phone was still in her hand, a red straw still dangled from her agape mouth. She had been sipping from a big vanilla malt when the airbag deployed.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Used Car Salesman

I sold my truck. So what?

The thing is, I didn't know how to sell a vehicle. I haven't sold one since I parted with my high school car, a 1962 MGA convertible, which I traded to buy an engagement ring thirty years ago. I joked that she was wearing my car on her finger.

We married. Her dad provided us a Gremlin, took it back, gave us a Nova, took it back, gave us a panel van with an airbrushed eagle killing a snake on the side, took it back. We eventually leased our own car, a Ford Tempo, black as a funeral.

I later added a 1972 Volvo to our stable. It was quirky and fun. For everything I fixed, something else broke. I fixed the analog clock, and the radiator blew. The car and I developed an understanding. I loved it. My wife hated it.

Against both our wishes, the divorce judge awarded her the Volvo, because we owned it; the Tempo was only leased, and I, a male, was forbidden by law to get anything of actual value out of the union. Another of my favorite cars slipped through her fingers. When I delivered the car to her, the door wouldn't open. I wasn't surprised. As I started to explain to her how the Volvo liked to have its handle jiggled a little, she kicked it. "Uh oh," I thought. "Now you've done it."

Six months later they towed it away, a heap, after it tried to kill her with carbon monoxide fumes.

When the Tempo lease ran out, I gave it up and bought my very first new car, a 1988 Celica. I still drive it. As my kids continued to grow tall and lanky and vociferous, I expanded to the truck, a white Pathfinder, chosen almost entirely for its rear legroom.

It was the chariot for many a summer adventure. I taught my daughters to drive in that truck. We went to the abandoned Aksarben parking lot. To teach them to park, I got out, walked about fifty yards away, and pointed out the parking space they were to end up in. The truck sat silent and motionless for a long time. Then it just turned and drove away.

When the transmission went out last month, I looked at it the same way I once looked at my old, sick cat. "It's time," I sighed. The new owner towed it off into the sunset. That's when I realized it was the first car I had actually sold since the MG.

I don't suppose I'll forget it. It's somewhere in the background of just about every vacation picture in fifteen years. I looked up Mick's, the bar I own, on Google Earth's satellite view, and was pleased to see my truck from space, parked in front.

While you're spying down on Mick's from above, click below to find out what's happening on the inside:

So now I get to buy a car, just for me. Anybody have an old Nissan 300SX? I always wanted one of those.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

That Blows

My office is in my attic. It's a nice high perch from where I can spy on my neighborhood. That's where I was when the tornado came.

I love storms, and smiled as the clouds went from bruise-blue to charcoal-black, and the wind spun up to a rip. But the intensity kept increasing beyond normal summer storms and the house began to shudder and moan. As my perch began feeling more like a diving platform, I headed for the basement.

Okay, too safe. So I crept back upstairs and peeked out my back door, which is on the lee side of a wind that had grown angry. "There will not be one tree left when this is over," I thought. The lights blinked out.

Of course, my first instinct is to call everyone I know, which is everyone else's instinct because the phone systems were jammed. Storms aren't as fun when you can't "Ooooo" with someone else.

I was apprehensive about going to the front of my house. That's where the damage would be. Gingerly, I opened the door. Leaves ripped from their branches were plastered across the windward side of my house as if an elephant had sneezed. My garden looked like it had been ambushed by a shotgun, ripped to ribbons by screaming hailstones. Big trees were down everywhere, and three cars were smashed flat. Worse, my car wasn't.

The transmission had gone out on my truck, and I've been trying to sell it. I parked it quite carefully under the biggest, longest, most precarious limb on my street, waiting for just such a storm. Imagine my envy seeing my neighbor's minivan nearly divided in half by the next silver maple log.

I think I pushed the garage door opener button ten times before realizing that it goes up by electricity, not by magic. As I stood in my yard, a firefly glowed brightly. "Well," I thought, "at least HE has power." More lightning bugs began blinking and I thought, "We'll get through this fine." Then the blinking stopped. I didn't know what to conclude from that.

We decided to open the bar anyway. It's always dark, always candlelit—so what's new? Vinnie Bronx called, eager to do an all acoustic show with guitar, stand-up bass and congas, and we set them up right in the middle of the floor. A few fans tiptoed in and got a great show. Afterwards I went home, pushed my garage door opener button ten more times, winked at the fireflies and went to bed. It was so quiet I could hear my own blood.

I haven't seen a bunny in my yard since sprin, but a little guy appeared this morning, and he was very apprehensive. So if anyone in West Omaha is missing a baby bunny, I think he landed in my back yard. I'll look after him for you.