Sunday, April 13, 2014

Finding terms

With apologies and much respect to Jaume
Over at my other online presence with the somewhat rude name, something kind of interesting happened recently: A post I'd put up back in mid-2011 started getting plucked out of the galaxy of photos available and - by my standards, at least - blew up. It's now logged over 430 likes and reblogs. I haven't done the math, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's close to half of everything else activity-wise put together there, if not more.

The photo for that post (found and used without knowledge or permission of the very talented photographer) is above. The caption I added to it reads, "Someone somewhere is having more fun than you. Whatcha gonna do about it?"

It seemed like a good-humored jab at web-browsing passivity and once-removed fanboyism at the time. In light of its newfound prominence and popularity, it's now becoming a pretty harsh mirror to my own current situation.

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So I'm sitting here on a lovely Sunday early afternoon, finishing what hipsters call brunch and what I call a lunch composed of breakfast foods and beer. It's spring break; school is out until next Wednesday. Plenty to do in the next week and a half, but for now it's time to find some peace and come to terms with the stress of the last few months.

Someone somewhere is definitely having more fun than I am, because I'm not having much fun at all. Owing to a number of particular reasons which will not be listed here (discretion is the better part of valor, etc.) life has become extraordinarily stressful and frustrating. The stoic in me has somehow managed to absorb the damage and continue going in the face of what amounts to an everyday tempest, but I know a toll is being taken in the process.

I sort of keep up with what's going on in the automotive world. I'm half-following the entire GM recall debacle, I've been paying attention to Formula 1 results, I'm waiting for the new Miata that's supposed to be unveiled here in New York in a few weeks. But a lot of that pleasant everyday obsession that used to be a prominent part of my consciousness has gone by the wayside for now, out of necessity.

All of that fondness and interest in great and attractive cars and motorcycles and the rest is still in my mind somehow, in the same way that all the German I learned so long ago is still probably in there and waiting to be reactivated. Really, though, it needs to stay back a bit for now. I have many other urgent situations and demands literally in my face every day.

We won't even discuss my inability to allow for the time and mental capacity to write something meaningful here lately.

I didn't think it would be this way. Indeed, I thought it would have almost been reversed; back in September I would have been certain that by this time I would be an owner-operator again. Instead, the push to purchase anything with wheels remains deferred as I deal with such humdrum if useful efforts as paying off my credit card and staring down my student loans, never mind a rent payment out of all proportion with reality and the ability for my remaining income to be dissipated with depressing ease.

I've been getting a ride to school most mornings in the back seat of a Ford Edge driven by a fellow teacher, and that statement contains all of the enthusiasm I am able to summon for that particular machine.

Daydreaming doesn't help. Actually, no; daydreaming makes it worse, much worse. It activates the craving, the addict's necessity, and with that the realization of just how vast the distance between this and that remains right now. To have made this great step forward into finally having a sense of a place in life - and coincidentally the accompanying salary that was supposed to put some patiently-awaited wishes within reach - and then face all of this has just been harsh.

Unfair? I dunno. What's fair? How are these things supposed to work? Had I just missed the point for a very long time? Doesn't matter, really. Such is life.

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Maybe it would be a bit easier if I didn't have a particularly present and annoying yardstick by which to measure the gap between faded expectations and damaged reality: the Ferrari 308.


Photo: Mbzt via Wikimedia
I've managed to build up a carbureted 308 GTB - an early one, before the weight went up and catalytic converters complicated things -  in my mind as some kind of summation of everything I find wonderful and alluring about cars. With the right understanding, it's a paragon: the very mechanical engine and chassis of a medium-displacement endurance racer recalibrated for street use, a simple and tastefully-fitted (and surprisingly roomy in the right ways) interior, and bodywork that happens to be one of the loveliest Modernist sculptures of the last fifty years, all available for about the same price as a midlevel Japanese sedan. That last part is the hook; by grande marque standards it's well within the realm of the possible. Any number of magazine articles over the last few years have happily promoted this idea. Somehow I know that as a math teacher of primarily central European descent I should be wanting a 911SC or 3.2 Carrera instead, and I definitely have my longings for those as well, but I remain fully under the spell of the 308.

And every time I think of one I sense that it has somehow become ever farther out of reach. Never mind the sense that prices appear to be climbing, never mind the logistical puzzle of keeping one in good shape and protecting it from various threats; the general idea of ownership of even this, the most accessible and reasonable of Ferraris, seems to be growing ever more distant as I come to terms with reality.

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Reality. Ever those barriers, ever those burdens, ever that inextinguishable lure to go onward and put up with the indignity of the everyday in hope of finding some sense of grace and majesty, however distant it may seem.

I've studied enough Buddhism to deeply appreciate how wanting is dangerous and how grasping makes things pass through your grip like a fistful of sand between fingers. The problem as it relates to those of us who identify with speed, with sensation, with this enthusiasm for the synthesis of form and physics and human experience, is that motor culture is intrinsically based around the idea of want. We want something, we want to have something, we want to do something. And we never stop wanting. Camille Jenatzy, the turn-of-the-century Belgian racer, named one of his land-speed-record cars "La Jaimas Contente" - the Never-Contented.


That eternal pursuit requires numerous and varied resources and decisions. That's probably the obvious reason why true gearheads are rare in society, especially in the middle adult years as speed-freak adolescents age and put on the yokes of parenthood and career climbing and civil responsibility. It takes effort to care about this even in the absence of ownership, to follow the news and do research on a favorite ride and compare notes with others. It also takes money, inevitably, and time - two things that get reapportioned to other needs too easily and frequently, if often with very good reason.

If it is impossible to stop the desire, I long to at least mitigate it, or have it reach a sort of armistice with the everyday. I want to find a comfortable equilibrium before I lose much more. I want to find some sort of convergence between costs and availabilities. I want to lose that sickening longing for a 308 and find genuine comfort in something less dear. I want peace.

Reality is an interesting machine in itself - not always a beautiful one, but one which remains endlessly fascinating, with so much to it that a lifetime isn't enough to figure it out. And it keeps moving, keeps changing, is never content in its own way.

Maybe that realization and its implications are enough for right now.

Monday, December 30, 2013

On edge


Photo: rollingstone64
I've always believed that you should never, ever give up and you should always keep fighting even when there's only a slightest chance. - Michael Schumacher, October 22, 2007

Forza, Michael.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Ways

Photo: Dave Wilson
The first real chance to catch up on thoughts mulled over during a phenomenally stressful and draining first few months of teaching:
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I have taken a few of my random free opportunities to seek out and absorb descriptions of Sebastian Vettel's driving style when possible, in an effort to more fully understand just how he has come to so totally rule Formula One - and how he has done so while being regarded with something between dismissal and contempt.

Seriously: it's hard to think of another athlete, never mind racing driver, who has proven to be so talented and successful while gaining so little respect in the process. And he is immensely, almost supernaturally talented, of which more later.

But he doesn't get a lot of love, which I believe is partially because of his wunderkind ascendancy. Four World Driving Championships by age 26? As has been noted elsewhere, Alain Prost hadn't even won his first Grand Prix at age 26. F1 has plenty of room for bright young talents, but this kind of dominance is a bit much for most fans to handle. Especially given that Vettel drives for Infiniti Red Bull, which is both faintly ridiculous (seriously, an energy drink company building race cars? didn't we go through something like this with Benetton?) and dominated by the presence of design genius Adrian Newey. Neither element does a lot for Vettel's credibility. I wonder how we'd feel about him if he had been associated with McLaren or Ferrari during this run.

Of course, if it was all about the car Mark Webber would have likely shown a lot better over the course of these last seasons. We have to go back to the person being behind the wheel - and the more important part of Vettel's success.

Back to those borrowed moments of research about Vettel's style. People don't have a lot to say about how he sets up his car; it's not like Schumacher's preference for a lively tail-happy feel or Nigel Mansell's very British fondness for understeer. Instead, two elements come to the fore: an obsession with thorough preparation and a sensitivity to car reaction that borders on the superhuman.

No one disputes that Vettel is the most involved, most attentive driver on the grid. He absorbs information like a first-rank field intelligence agent. He talks to the right people at the team's suppliers and asks the right questions. He really cares about knowing what is going on, a lesson learned from Schumacher and then expanded to its current state, and it shows.

Once those suppliers contribute their pieces and the car comes together, though, something really odd starts to happen. Vettel just seems to make them all work together to a sublime degree, more so than anyone else even knows how to do.

Forget for the moment the rumors of illegal traction control. Again, if it was all about that Webber is no slouch and it would have been a lot closer there.

Instead, what we get is repeated displays of a freakish degree of driving skill. But it's subtle. It's not the virtuoso flamboyance of a Villeneuve or Moss or the hardcore intensity of Schumacher or Senna or the cool confident reserve of a Prost or Stewart. And it's not really a robotic anonymity, either.

If anything, Vettel's style is Taoist. He knows the Way. His ability to feel what goes on with the car and react to it is unsurpassed and possibly unsurpassable. His ability to play the game and deal with traffic has improved by quanta even in the course of this short career. He drives with Non-Ado; nothing is wasted, nothing is out of order. He goes out, he drives, he wins, he points his finger in the air, he goes to the next race.

Yes, he is still human, and occasionally he does some pretty human things. (See: Malaysia.) But he knows how to do it, and innately is able to do it.

Which leaves the lack of respect. I think this will change given some time; opinion from the old heads is coalescing firmly in his favor (Gerhard Berger calls him already one of the all-time greats, and coming from someone who raced against many of those greats that matters), and as we further understand his abilities and stop looking for the drama or heroic slashing efforts as signifiers, we may realize what is happening.

Not that he has to worry too much from his perch atop the motor racing world, surrounded by incredible material success, but I have to think he deserves far more appreciation than he's received. Hopefully he has a sense of self-possession to match that fantastic skill; he should be at peace with all of this, even if it's beyond the respect of the masses so far.
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Photo: Dave Wilson, again
The flip side of Vettel's style - and popular appreciation - is over at MotoGP, where Spanish phenom Marc Márquez seized the crown in his rookie year at the top echelon. Márquez is a classic devil-may-care charger, a screamingly fast and forceful rider who has already earned a massive degree of love and devotion (except among his competitors, who doubtless still respect him). He's the clear heir apparent to Valentino Rossi; as Il Dottore likely winds down his magnificent career, Márquez comes in to provide a worthy fan favorite and standard bearer for the series.

We are the poorer for not being able to see him race against Marco Simoncelli for several seasons in what would have likely been a rivalry for the ages. In that it remains to be seen what the current field will do to face him, or what talent will come up in the same way. Regardless, Márquez is the most exciting racer in motorsports right now and it will be fascinating to watch his career develop.
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I like the new Mustang. Yes, it could have been better in some ways, which I guess is just a different way of saying I would have done a few things differently, but in general it works. Have to wait and see how well it works on the road (and I'd like to see it in black) but given my anxieties about how this could have turned out - see the awful ski-jump rear that Car and Driver was so sure we'd get - this is good.

I feel for Mustang product planners. For far too long they've had to deal with a vociferous fan base that's about as progressive as a Salt Lake City VFW chapter - think about how long it took to get disc brakes, never mind a modern powerplant or rear suspension - but it seems like something of an Enlightenment mindset has finally worked its way in to the conferences. America needs a great, classic, affordable GT car that's not overly trapped by precedent; after too many false starts and retro homages, we might finally get some of that to match straight up against the flawed but very respectable current Camaro.

It's definitely enough to keep it on my "maybe/inquire" list.
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The ascension of Mary Barra to head of GM is still slightly shocking. It's not because a female CEO is all that radical in this day - actually, it should rightfully be more common - but that it happened in what is still probably the most traditionalist, hidebound, and insular large industry in the US, and especially at General Motors of all places. In a universe where a certain breed of manly-man attitude and entrenched traditionalism still seems to rule, Barra's coronation is a step beyond expectation. She's more than earned it and will be great for the company, though, if her resume is any indication. Would love to sit down and talk shop with her.
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Oh, no manual box for the new Lamborghini after all. Too good to be true, I guess.

Monday, October 14, 2013

School daze

There are certain things I should have learned by now in this life which continue to evade my grasp. Among those truths is this: statements of certainty and confirmation will inevitably be shredded at the first possible convenience.

In other words, the day after I wrote about my futile and failed search for a teaching job was the day before I was hired at a middle school in Harlem. The last month and a half has been dominated by the terrifying demands and stresses involved with teaching math to eighty seventh graders - or, really, trying to get them to settle in and pay attention so that I might try to do that.

It's what I've been working towards doing for a very long time. It is also incredibly frustrating and exhausting. Keeping up with the motor world, and putting down thoughts about it here, have become marginal issues in the face of this massive responsibility.

I'll be dropping in details about certain things here every now and then, especially as I start a legitimate search for commuter wheels. But longer-form works may be on hold for a while as I deal with more important and immediate issues.

So that's been why this is so quiet lately. It's great, but it's also ridiculous, but it's also life. And as much as this is about a very real part of life, there are other parts.

Will keep everyone posted.

Oh, and if anyone has anything interesting for sale for less than like five thousand, let me know.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The other half

A (comparatively) short entry in the middle of a holiday weekend with more than a few things on my mind:

I am not up at the vintage races at Lime Rock. I could be; in a different case I would be. As it is, and in part as explanation to some friends who may be wondering why I'm being so damn weird this weekend, please understand that this has not been an easy couple of weeks. I've been all over the city for a bunch of teaching interviews to no great effect so far, on a violent emotional up-and-down between the peak anxiety and excitement in each meeting and the letdown that follows, especially as time slides on without any responses. And there have been no responses, and as Tuesday is the day that teachers are to report to their schools there's a sense of the clock running out. And I'm still coughing, and I just feel more than a bit flat. It's not a very happy weekend.

So the idea of going to watch a bunch of people have fun in a bunch of lovely old racers surrounded by a bunch of people driving another bunch of generally cool, often vaguely affordable old cars right now doesn't jibe with my mood at all, especially given the sense that I would be right in there with everyone if just one of these interviews had gone just a bit better somehow. Instead, the preference is to stay clear of all that because I know it will ironically just be a ridiculous downer. (There's precedent for this: when I lived upstate I went to Watkins Glen for one of the vintage races. I lasted about two hours, fell ever deeper into a major funk, went back home and mowed the lawn.)

So instead I've been staying close with Wonderful One and her mom, getting out and around a bit. Driving has proven to be therapeutic, especially with them in the car. (It's also precluded the presence of photos in this entry; trying to simultaneously drive and take snapshots with an iPhone is borderline dangerous.) Out to Jones Beach just to be in the sun and sea air for a while Friday afternoon; yesterday with a bit more time and ambition to Montauk Point.

Part of the fun of heading out to Montauk is that one is forced to travel through that alternate universe that is the Hamptons, that notorious enclave of absurd wealth at the far eastern end of Long Island, a place whose presence in the collective consciousness far exceeds its diminutive physical stature.

Seriously: The Hamptons are basically a stretch of Colonial-era small towns not unlike a lot of those in the Northeast that lie along a single narrow road, with modest farms (corn, pumpkins) and the occasional vineyard in between. Nothing that exciting, nothing too profound through most of its history.

Yes, this is a bit like saying that Beverly Hills is a suburb of Los Angeles. It's not so much the function of how things were for three hundred something years as much as it is the current sense of things. With that in mind, a brief primer on the reality of driving a car in the Hamptons:

- Traffic is miserable. Especially on a holiday weekend. Everyone is on the same road as you, facing the same intersection in Bridgehampton that was never intended to manage a fraction of the traffic it now faces regularly, because that's the only real road. You will crawl. Be sure to travel with patient, good-humored passengers if possible.

- Cars that are impressive in normal life become boring in steady repetition. The Maserati Granturismo seems to be this year's favorite among the well-heeled. Seeing (and hearing) one is usually an event; seeing ten per hour gets to be a bit dreary. You will lose track of your Ferrari count, Porsches will attract little more than a sideways glance, BMWs will become invisible. (With occasional exceptions for us obsessives. Word to the 928 GTS driver: Ausgezeichnet, man.)


- Corollary to the above: You will impress no one with your choice of wheels, and you will be upstaged constantly. Your formerly panty-dropping M3 convertible is a non-entity next to one of those Granturismos. If you have a Granturismo, you'll park two down from a 458 Italia. And so on until you think you've reached the peak, in which case you better hope you're not there when Peter Kalikow goes for a drive in his LWB California Spyder. Which he did.

No, if you're going to go driving in the Hamptons with a sense of consciousness, go for something that either expresses discreet enlightened dignity (diesel Golf) or bohemian charm (Alfa Spider). Dare to be different. Whoever had that Citroën 2CV had the right idea, although it may have been Billy Joel.

- Bring cash. At some point you will want to pull out of the slog of traffic to find a cup of coffee or a lobster roll or a muffin or so on, and you will find that in spite of the monstrous net worth of the ambient crowd there are a lot of places that don't care if you're waving around a Centurion card; it's cash only. Feel free to use the ATM that may be there if you're less cautious about your bank info than we usually are. Prepare to wait, because a lot of those people in traffic with you will have had the same idea.

- Get all the way out to Montauk Point. It's a total break from the excesses of the Hamptons, and one of the most interesting shores in the country. Going up to the lighthouse may or may not be worth the $9 admission by your own reckoning, but the surrounding park is a rough-hewn delight.


Not sure what's in store for today. Maybe time to stay in a bit, sort papers and so on, try to rest this cough out of my system. Longer post in the works for later.