Thursday, December 14, 2017

Don't call us, we'll call you

Well, it had to happen at some point.  It's been sixteen years after all.

I spoke with customer service at Amazon. 

This, it turns out, is not something easily accomplished.  Go ahead, go to their web site and find a number to call.  I'll give you five minutes. See you back here.

Did you find a number?  I'm impressed.  The most bleeding edge, innovative, pervasive consumer-focused business in the world and it took me sixteen years (and a little more than five minutes) to get on the phone with them.  And they were on their game the minute I spoke with them.  As I sell customer service and engagement systems that help business establish commerce and service processes across communications channels, I am professionally intrigued and a little impressed:

First of all, the phone number is a bit of a wild goose chase.  They do such a good job of self service for returns and other common processes you don't need to call them. Talking with them is truly the last option, both by design and by customer desire.

And here's the kicker: you don't call Amazon, they call you. 

When you finally go down the rabbit hole far enough, you'll find a place to punch in your phone number and they'll call you: now or in five minutes, your choice.  Not sure who wants to be called in five minutes as opposed to now, but it's an option so there's probably a good reason for it.  In my case, I entered my cell phone number, clicked a button, and my phone started ringing. 

Amazon calling!

...Which gave their systems time to connect to an agent and pop her screen with information about me- a lot of information, it turns out, including my cell phone number which they now have- and simply confirm that it was me she was speaking with.  Through our brief conversation, she had the exact date of the transaction in question in front of her, how many transactions had occurred since then (fourteen, it turns out), had visibility to Mrs. Toadroller's account and orders, and was empowered to resolve the issue.

Customer service: rare, clever, empowered, gathering, informed, complete.  I probably won't need to talk with them for another sixteen years.

Of course, calling on a phone is so early 21st century.  I don't doubt that should the Toadroller household have an Alexa device, or maybe a Fire-TV (Alexa enabled), I could, probably with five minutes of verbal sparring, get through to a human.  That used to be called OnStar, I think.  But there's Siri, Cortana, "Ok Google"; there are ChatBots, AI, Machine Learning, IOT signals, Predictive Service, Twitter, Facebook... uh... email.  what's the consumer's choice of convenient communication channel?  As a customer support organization, that's where you need to be.

Why make them "press or say one" for service?

Don't call us, we'll call you.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Captured thoughts

Many a thought has congealed in my brain over the last few months.  And any conclusive insight is worthy of an essay, explaining the context, the new information, the logic, and therefore the conclusion, all packaged in an analogy to act as the sugar which helps the medicine go down.

But I've not felt prolific enough to sit down at the keyboard and develop these records of progress and instead, off they go, some forgotten, some put into regular use, some stumbled upon and rediscovered and rearranged without me remarking on the remarkable.

So let me capture a few of these thoughts here, while the coffee is still warm and the brain is fresh; perhaps for future development or simply to know that I've had them and wonder at some future date whence they came and where they went and how I could have been so undeveloped in my thinking to have considered them novel or insightful in the first place.  For the world is not so complex; there is nothing new; an much more can be achieved by applying time-tested principals than trying to develop new ones.

Linear thinking

We are all so skilled at multi tasking, at noting the squirrels that interrupt our thought processes, and gathering fleeting ideas and noting them before they scatter just out of reach that we think brainstorming and mind mapping are the way to think. They are but and early stage of thinking.  We are proposing ideas, identifying avenues, coming up with hypotheses.  We are dealing in potentials.  This can be active, it can be group or individual, it can be done while performing a separate task,* but these establish boundaries, identify goals and obstacles. 

Thinking is the processing of the obstacles and the boundaries through which we must travel to achieve our goal.  And there's nothing so amazing as sitting down with a pen and paper to process.  Linear thinking.  Start writing and work your way through without chasing a distracting squirrel.  Give yourself fifteen minutes, half an hour, and you'll be amazed at what you can come up with.  Most problems can be solved with short bursts of hard thinking on a single process.  The pen (or the keyboard or the state-machine drawing) has the ability to focus and distill the random thinking and the processing into a cohesive narrative.


I was asked by one of the younger Toadrollers how one makes friends.  My first thought was that I don't have any, how can I advise? 

But that isn't true.  What I don't have is any I pal around with, clubs I belong to, families that the Toadroller family visits or vacations with.  Between family and career, I have enough excuse in the world not to pursue a good buddy.  When the time is right, such buddies will appear.  Perhaps (and most likely) through a common hobby or pursuit- golf, motorcycles, what have you.  For now, relationships come from the families of childrens' friends, mentors, and my brothers in arms in business with whom I've been through battles and with whom I've shared the toasts of victory and defeat.

Dear friends are the result of such shared engagements of the past.  Who, by chance, was on the same floor in a dorm?  Who was your lab partner?  Who else had a shared interest in a project?   Time and reflection and occasional communications celebrate the relationship, if for no better reason than nostalgia.  Good times, indeed.  The battles you fight today become the memories tomorrow.  Enjoy that journey along the way and you'll have a friend for all times.

Learning to compete

When the eldest Toadroller visited a few months ago, we played pool and golf.  Though I am by all measurements a competitive person, I don't compete to win.  He pointed this out over a game of eight ball.  He had no idea the impact it had on me.

I like to think my passive aggressive, sarcastic, and competitive nature was honed through an adolescence in the northeast, a near-Boston culture where survival was based on being, well, a dick to people without them really knowing it.  Plant a little time-bomb of an insult and, should the victim think about it in the future, they'll realize they were bettered.  Can I blame it on jerky rich kids?  It's as good an excuse as any, but the passive-aggressive nature remains.

I like to think that I temper this in competition.  I compete to prove to the other that I can beat them, but choose not to.  Call it strutting or showing off, but I will compete to just below the level of my competition, with my excuse being that I could have won if I chose to, so that's as good as a victory.

What an ego.

The truth is that people really aren't impressed that I could have beat them.  They probably never even give it a second thought.  The truth is that I'm not good enough to win and have never made the next level or applied the focus in the moment necessary to win.  With that insight, I started to recognize the things I wasn't doing, and the things I had to do in order to win.  And focused on eliminating mistakes and incorporating the tactics to bring about my result. 

In the world of billiards, it has been ball control and shot selection for the next shot.  Which choice will lead me to a better result?  No shot attempts without knowing what the next shot will be.  From there you learn how the ball reacts to the target ball, the carom off the bumper, power and touch.  In golf, it has been concentration, information gathering, wedge play, and focusing on the putts.  And eliminating carelessness to avoid scores greater than a bogey.  My last four rounds have been in the low 80s, with 38s on both sides of the 18.  Improvement is there, and I just seem to know how to focus. I make the right decisions.  I execute the right shots.  This feeds itself and improves my score.

For what it's worth, winning here is not meant to be a defeat at the cost of the loser, but winning as a success and completion, achievement of a goal and process.

Giving up

At a recent team meeting, we had a keynote speaker who had climbed Everest and had jogged across Canada for a charity cause.  He naturally took his experiences and related them as analogies to the business world, insights to professionalism, etc.

One of the insights he discovered and related to us was that when you're at your limits, when your whole body and mind are asking you to give up, you'll discover that you can take one more step.  You don't have to stop.  It's those who persist who break through and succeed.  It's the extra 1% that makes all the difference.

My peers and I looked at each other and marveled in the epiphany that there was an option to give up.  We're a group of type A's who had never considered abandoning something. 

It reminded me of comedian John Mulaney's story of playing as a bench-warmer on the basketball team for five years. At the annual awards ceremony a speaker extolled the virtues of the athletic programs because "without them, the alternative is kids turning to drugs and alcohol."  For Mulaney, it was the first time he'd heard there was an alternative.  He decided that he "would become the best at that."

* Over the weekend I polished the old A8 and reminisced about how much I've enjoyed the car.  Yes, I waxed nostalgic.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Good for Another Year

First I brought Scarlet, Mrs. Toadroller's monstrous S4, down to the local all-purpose fix-it shop for an inspection.  I noticed the other day that the sticker had expired in December.  Whoops!

Mutt and Jeff* admired my handy-work strapping the mid-exhaust to its hangar which had un-welded itself.  They also admired the car - "they crammed a V8 in there?  Must go like stink!  Ooh, it's a stick?" The replaced a license plate bulb and splat-boom, one down, one to go.

Conversation turned to fixing things in general, including houses, and they started talking about a feller that does a lot of work for them and all he ever seems to do these days is "fix shit he would have been embarrassed to charge a customer for in the first place" and by example a project he was working over on The Scribner Road where the customer didn't want a frost barrier on their concrete because they were too cheap.  That rang a bell for me - "Oh, you mean Jeff W?"  "Yeah!  He was here just ten minutes ago.  Went home to take a nap.  Lots of plowing tonight."

Jeff W. is going to be tearing into the latest shit others have done to our home that he would have been embarrassed to charge for, but clearly others weren't.

Small circles like this are Maine to the core.  He knows her, and she knows him, and he knows somebody else; his cousin.  It's true of any real community, if you think about it.  It probably applies to The Big Apple, but on occurrences a bit more spread apart.  You can have community where you are... and you can not have community.  Both at the same time.  Of the world, in the world.  Yes.  No.  At the post office yesterday I ran into the parent of one of the kids Toadroller Luke played sports with oh so long ago.  And then the usher from the church over in Winthrop** came in and I sent him ahead in line- he with a letter and me with four boxes to California.  And the Postmistress herself a regular at Saturday 4:00pm anticipated mass.

Back up the slippery hill I went to fetch Old Blue, the A8, the Thousand Dollar Car, she of the sagging oil pressure.  Fingers were crossed: they said that brake pads would be coming around soon enough, but okay for now.  I shared my recent fun with alternators, fuel injectors, and batteries, never mind the disintegrating plastic bumpers which are evermore shattering in the cold when you back her into a snow bank.  But still, from a 3/4 view looking from the rear to the front, she's a beautiful car with incredible lines and shiny paint and at 20 years*** (14 in dog years), my heart reached out to her.  And so they passed her too.

"You're good for another year," they said, putting the sticker on the window, and I wondered to myself, "Am I?"

* One of them is named Jeff, or at least his shirt patch says so, but the two of them seem like twins; very likely brothers.  Picture a pair of Santas, white beards and all, wrenching everything from Saabs to Chevys.

** The Winthrop post office suffered the defeat of a fire, so ours has a stream of visitors picking up their mail.

*** They had a snowblower in the shop, at the ready.  It looked familiar and sure enough, it was the same exact model we inherited from my father-in-law Bert.  "That thing is older than you!" they joked, but I told them I had the same one.  "Oh, that's a good one.  You kick in that rear traction and it's a monstah!"  I believe it's from 88-89 time frame.  It'll be getting some solid use tomorrow, as our nor'easter continues to blow through the night.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Man, the Tool Maker

I came across this drawing:

.. and asked Henry Toadroller (hey, his initials are HTR) what it was.  In his usual precise conversational mode, imparting all that I need to know in the fewest words possible, he said, "something I'm making," and that was that.*

I came back from a business trip to find this on the workbench:

Dang!  I like that!

And so you see the tool holder along with a shelf for the works in process.  I believe those are bishops for the chess set he's been carving.

I think he's going to be amazing.

*Not entirely true.  At some other point he asked if he could use the piece of white trim "for something I'm making."

$15.86 Worth of Doom in the Post

For lo, the Thousand Dollar Car is showing low oil pressure again.

Given the recently replaced oil pressure sensor, all of two months ago, and yet another (this time I bought the $10 sensor, big spender that I am) lighting up the dashboard animations after a few minutes of running time, I figured it was time to buy a genuine oil pressure gauge (and assorted adapters, $15.86, free shipping) to do a real test and see if the oil pressure really is low.  Or jumpy.  Or high.  Come to think of it, I'm not even sure what its oil pressure should be reading.  This information can surely be found somewhere on the internet.  Regardless, Amazon provides and the USPS delivers, eventually.

It's probably a $500 test.  If it passes and the problem is something else, like bad wiring, then it's a $1400 car for Craigslist.  If it fails, then maybe it's a $900 car.  Maybe it's a free car.  Maybe it makes its way to a junkyard under its own power.  'Tis a shame really, all the seat heaters still work.  Nice stereo too.  But its doom is upon us, and that makes me sad.  Fourteen years.  Still drives nicer (engine response, power, suspension refinement, sound, interior, etc., etc.) than the fourteen-years-newer and fancier Mercedes E class.

In other Toadroller's Used Car Lot news, I've been bringing the silver A4 back to snuff after two years in the hands of the eldest, whose car she wasn't yet whose primary driver he was, and whose cheapskate-first-class treatment of her (he wouldn't turn on the heat, thinking it would save on fuel) left her feeling a little droopy.  After filling two bags of trash with used candy wrappers, dirty socks, a tie, many a coffee cup, and various and sundry, I've set about treating her more nicely.  I washed her, changed the oil and filter (almost 9k miles on that!  I completely spaced it last year), replaced the broken arm-rest cover, put in a new light switch plate that wasn't scratched to hell, aimed the headlights properly (they were pointed down to a point about five feet in front of the vehicle) ran a container of Techron through the tank, filled her with the highest test (93) I can find around, and have given her some time on the highway.  The engine is running much more smoothly and is happier to rev.  I think another tank or two of good juice and it will be butter on hot roll. 

Next up will be a replacement hood release lever along with some cable lubrication.  Lack of the latter lead to a breaking of the former, although the former was a cheap piece of plastic.  Again, Amazon, my auto supply shop, delivers what can otherwise be found only at a dealership for much money, or on Ebay at pretty-much money and unlikely fit.  Still to go is the power steering.  I'm thinking it's the pump as it's not losing juice and the reservoir isn't foaming from air in the system.  The first 15 seconds of driving though, the system has no pressure and then suddenly *snap* it pops on.  I've never done this job, but it appears to be an unhook, remove and replace procedure after you remove a few other things, like the front bumper.  Which sounds awful, but is really a matter of six nuts, unhooking headlight wires, and two bolts, then it slides out like a drawer.  Or so the videos on YouTube show me.  Come spring and warm weather I'll spray-glue the headliner in the back seat, give her a detailing, and be pleased.  Oh, and fix the driver's bun-warmer, which has focused all of its power like a laser beam to one spot at my right buttock.  So a short in the wiring.  Also a solution to be found on YouTube.

Other than that, it really is a fun, zippy, easy to shift German sedan, and it's happier and more at home the farther north of the speed limit your needle finds itself.  It comes into its own.  Not bad for 174000 miles.

Mrs. Toadroller's beastie S4 got a new strap to hold up its sagging exhaust- the hanger welded to the top of that mid-exhaust un-welded itself, giving me a half an hour on the garage floor in mid-March's best 18 degree weather.  But that's why I have old snow pants, boots, coats and work gloves.  It's actually quite toasty in there.  After I got it all strapped up, I took it for a drive through the neighborhood.  What a monster.  What a flipping amazing half-throttled, high-revving, climbing-for-more beast of a V8 and a flip-of-a-lever-and-push-of-the-clutch sweet, sophisticated bitch of a car she is.  Damn.

That said, it's supposed to be spring soon, and I'll be prepping the Suzie for the road.  I can't wait.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


I'm forty-eight years old.

I've never listened to (or purchased) a Rolling Stones album in my life.


Many reasons.  They're not my thing.  Beatles or Stones?  Beatles. Pride. Ignorance. Just don't care. Life is too short.  Which is strange, because I've purchased albums of other artists who I've never cared for to see what, if anything, I might be missing.  Bruce Springsteen comes to mind as an example.* So does Prince.**

The 'Stones came up on some random playlist on the interwebs the other day.  It might have been YouTube or Pandora, but it was probably Amazon's music service which flows though the tele into the stereo into my family room.  An album is a click away, and so I clicked and added "Sticky Fingers," to my subscription, an album I remember for the vulgar intent of its cover, depicting and even providing an actual zipper embedded therein for purposes of, well, you get it, going back in time to regarding it as a mid-teen (15 years of age? 17?) in Strawberries, Nashua "mall," ca. early 80s.  The album itself, it turns out, was released in 1971, me just a toddler of a Toadroller, somewhere in Ohio; most likely in Dayton near an Osinski domicile, not a resident of Plumwood Road.

And so, this evening, as I relaxed from a Sunday of Maine-styled roof-shoveling and errand-running and oil-changing and who knows what-all, reviewing the internet's denizens' definitions of capitalism and economic paradigms and generally making a rage against General Theory, I listened to "Sticky Fingers" from start to finish.

Not bad.  Bluesy, swaggery, sloppy, hardly polished and slick, but in the best way, and decent in attitude.

I'll listen again.

*Shame on me.  I've bought them, on vinyl even, but still haven't given them the "spin" that vinyl affords.
** Prince, it turns out, was awesome.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Quadratus Lumborum! Quadratus Lumborum! Latin for "root cause."

Well, maybe not.  But I do think it has been the root cause of much of my back pain.

Over the last few weeks I've been at it again, trying to strengthen my core and stretch anything I can think of to stretch, getting to know various yoga propositions (they're not positions, as there's no way I'll ever reach them).  And while noticing strength improvements, I've not really been gaining much in the old-man-flexibility index, which has been hovering around .001 for the last 4-5 years.

Until another set of searches for lithe young yoga practitioners spewing self-spiritu-harmonious advice while tying their legs and arms behind their necks in positions that would confound a salty sailor's knowledge of knots brought me to some videos with diagrams and musculo-skeletal aparatus with very largely bicepped  and tricepped men standing beside them talking very seriously with big medical-physio terms and the dos and don'ts of muscle development and gain without the wrong kind of pain. 
I'd tried this last year and was convinced of the need to strengthen my Tiger-Woods-style de-activated glutes of maximus, medius and even minimus varieties to the point that I was strong right up until the whole house of cards collapsed and I spent a month barely able to walk, much less laugh or swing a golf club.  Which was bad, because it was May.

Well, these very large men who apparently like to pick things up and put them down an awful lot then proceeded to sit on the floor and demonstrate by stretching to an extent to make Mary Lou Retton blush.

What's this Quadratus Lumborum then?

These are the muscles of the lower back that connect from the top of your hip bones to your last rib.  Check.  They said these are the ones that like to zing and grab.  Check.  They said if you sleep on your side, one hip is hiked up for long periods of time, and these relaxed Q.L. muscles are happy to shrink up and bind.  Check.  Oh, and if you're the type of person who often sits in a chair with one leg underneath a hip... Check mate.

They said not to stretch, just yet, but rather to do deep-tissue activation, which they demonstrated by lying on the floor and shoving a tennis ball under their backs at the location of these muscles, and then rolling around on it, doing what to me looked like tenderizing the meat before putting it on the grill.  I'm sure you could pay a Helga good money to inflict this type of pain upon you in what is known as a massage.  Then they instructed stretches in a couple of ways that were similar to my yoga ladies' propositions, but were frankly obscene to be seen from a large man.  Men can't stretch like that!

So I got out a tennis ball and tenderized my Q.L.s what I hoped would prove sufficiently, then folded my legs at the hips and knees this way and that, and began to stretch. Chunk, chunk, chunk! Chiropractic spine cracks rang out in the most satisfying way, and I was able to lean what seemed a good way forward and just rest into the stretch.  For a while.  It's taken me years to understand that stretching isn't so much about the pressure you put on the muscle, it's about letting the muscle relax once you get it to a stretched position.  I unfolded and refolded myself in the opposite direction and gave that a go.  Chunk, chunk, ah....

And then I stood up.

I have not been that loose in the hips for twenty years.  Elvis' pelvis had nothing on me.  I mean, the whole lower back wasn't being held rigid by some tight pressure; I could move.  I'd demonstrate, but no one really wants to see that.  Not even Mrs. Toadroller.  Apparently especially not Mrs. Toadroller.  Suffice it to say the change was dramatic and immediate.

And just the beginning.

Over the last two days (in addition to about 5 hours of waltzing my snow blower through 20 inches of snow), I've tenderized and stretched and been able to lean more and more.  This has allowed my other muscles to get back to their fundamental responsibilities and stop helping the Q.L.s out.

Hell yeah!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

I find your lack of pressure disturbing

What does it say about about me (or about Audi) that my gut reaction to red low oil pressure warnings animating themselves in  glaring red on the instrument panel is to blame and replace the sensor?

Surely the sensor is bad.  It's old.  It's like a fuse.  If the engine hasn't given up the ghost after twenty years and 257,000 miles, why would something go wrong now?  A replacement sensor was five bucks.  I'll tell you if it was the culprit a little later on.

Failing that test, the next is to get an oil pressure gauge and check it out.  Thirty-five bucks on Amazon, or Autozone can loan me one.

Should it fail that test, I may achieve my Uncle Jim's dream of killing a modern car engine through benign neglect.

Edited to add:

One hour later, I'd removed the airbox to get at the old sensor, tucked away as it was under the exhaust manifold.  I practiced a little patience with a crescent wrench (who has a 24mm open end wrench?) and it came smoothly off.  It replacement went smoothly on.  I buttoned her back up, double-checked everything and went for a drive. 

Rev the engine, no error light.  Up the drive way, no error light.  Up the road, no light.  Romped on her up to 60 a few times, no light.  Drove her in to town and got some gas, no light.

Fifteen miles later, no light.

I love it when it's the sensor!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mental anguish

Have you taught yourself to ride a bicycle lately?  Tie your shoes?  Worked to improve your penmanship?

Nor have I. 

But I did receive an electronic drum set for Christmas, and it's much the same experience.  My brain (and I suspect yours as well), on trying to learn a new coordination, simply hurts.  There's a wall, a humming, a pressure, a blocking obstacle, an insidiously spawned anxiety attack there that is just this side of physical when I try to enforce a new coordination upon it.  I can only battle it for a few minutes before I have to get up and walk away.

I encounter this when I make a change to my golf swing, when I try to learn a new song on the guitar, or when I sit down to develop the logic and flow of a customer presentation.   There is an order to be investigated, there is a sequence to be memorized, and a tempo to be met.  It takes repeated practice for it to stick.

This is mental work.  Thinking is hard. But this goes beyond problem-solving and reasoning; here we're doing something physical, ingraining a coordination so we can ride without the training wheels, read and write without spelling each letter of each word, and in the case of drumming, run through a pattern of 1-y-and-a, 2-y-and-a without counting it out. 

I draw different insights than, say, Destin and his backward bike, but I bet the mental anguish was the same.  Watch his struggles here:

The breakthroughs, though, are worth the sacrifice.  After much effort, the passive coordination kicks in and you're able to simply do things, and it's on to the next challenge. 

Over the next week I'll be spending a lot of time in a hotel room in Las Vegas on business.  I'm not one for gambling, so after a long day of work and thinking and smiling and trying to remember people's names, I'm looking forward to getting back to my room with a pair of sticks and a practice pad to blow off steam with some coordination integration focused execution and speed on a two stroke roll, a para-diddle, and a five stroke roll:

By the way: the exceedingly slow, mechanical strikes he begins with are very important; they tell the muscles what to do.  Your brain automatically absorbs the slow and key coordinations through the full path of the drumstick.  I played along with this one and was almost able to keep up to the height of his speed.  I couldn't believe it.  And no, Yoda, I did not fail.

Getting a little fancier, here's a drummer who'd been at it for ten years before he really broke down the para diddle rudiment and then knocked it out of the park.  It only took him a few months of steady practice. 

Wish me luck.

It's a Raymond Chandler Evening

Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep starts with:
It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.  I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be.  I was calling on four million dollars.
And gets better...
The lean black-eyed credit jeweler was standing in his entrance in the same position as the afternoon before. He gave me the same knowing look as I turned in. The store looked just the same. The same lamp glowed on the small desk in the corner and the same ash blonde in the same black suede-like dress got up from behind it and came towards me with the same tentative smile on her face.
It was raining again the next morning, a slanting gray rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads.  I got up feeling sluggish and tired and stood looking out of the windows, with a dark harsh taste of Sternwoods still in my mouth.  I was as empty of life as a scarecrow's pockets.  I went out to the kitchenette and drank two cups of black coffee.  You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol.  I had one from women.  Women made me sick.
 The blonde spat at me and threw herself on my leg and tried to bite that.  I cracked her on the head with the gun, not very hard, and tried to stand up. She rolled down my legs and wrapped her arms around them. I fell back on the davenport.  The blonde was strong with the madness of love or fear, or a mixture of both, or maybe she was just strong.
 A small man with glasses and a tired face and a black bag came down the steps from the pier.  He picked out a fairly clean spot on the deck and put the bag down.  Then he took his hat off and rubbed the back of his neck and stared out to sea, as if he didn't know where he was or what he had come for.
The dialogue's vernacular is comprised of dames and soldiers, dusting-offs and skipping town, colts and blackjacks, club-ears and worn suits; they're crafted into phrases like "Shake your business up and pour it.  I haven't got all day," and "You've been following me around for a couple of days, like a fellow trying to pick up a girl and lacking the last inch of nerve.  Maybe you're selling insurance.  Maybe you knew a fellow called Joe Brody. That's a lot of maybes, but I have a lot on hand in my business."

Lose yourself in West Hollywood hacks and private dicks, spoiled rich women and crooked cops, dirty smut and desperate dames.  It's better than watching the tele.

Friday, December 23, 2016

One's Rogue Thoughts

I took the Toadrollers to see "Rogue 1, a Star Wars Movie" last night.  I've since had a million thoughts popping into my head from as if from hyper-space and thought I'd jot them down while they're still fresh.


  • The Empire should really look into better passcode verification algorithms on their shuttles.  I can't believe how many times in these films Rebels have made it past the Empire's most guarded gates with last week's password.
  • About CGI and Grand Moff Tarkin: I sat there watching the scenes with him and wondering to myself, "isn't Peter Cushing dead?" and "How'd they do that?"  So from my perspective, totally fooled. 
  • Still no clarification on what a Moff is, by the way, and why there should be a Grand one.
  • These recent Star Wars movies have been fun thrill rides.  Sure, there are plenty of plot holes and "why didn't they just..." moments, but they've basically been good fun and adventure on a Star Wars set.
  • It's pretty clear to me that there won't be a sequel to this one.  Or a prequel.  One Toadroller wittily indicated that George Lucas had directed the sequel already; called it "A New Hope."
  • It's also clear that these aren't the "Rei's parents" you're looking for.
  • About three quarters of the way through the movie it dawned on me just precisely where it was going to end.  That was my Movantik moment. Shit!
  • At what point in the Empire's corporate ladder do you get your own shuttle?  Since each one is personal, is it kind of like sitting down for a portrait?  Does one work with the design team or do you leave all that to your executive admin?
  • Star Wars Episode 2, "The Clone Wars," was generated from an off-hand comment by Kenobi to young Luke while Threepio shut down to conserve power.  "My father fought in the Clone Wars?"  This was a moment of mystery that did not need exposition via the second worst film ever made.
  • Star Wars Rogue 1 (are the kids calling it R1?) also tells a back story, but one I never expected to see, and didn't mind seeing in the least. I thought it was generated from the line "many people died to bring us this information," but research (searching YouTube) proves this line was from Return of the Jedi, and about the second Death Star.
  • We bump into some familiar characters in the movie, but without the usual"that's right kids, we put this in here too!" fanfare.  It was intriguing to see Red Five give up his slot.  If I'm looking to have point-to-point connections being drawn, Threepio talking with Luke in Uncle Owen's garage ties back to R1's Threepio / Artoo cameo.  But to be honest, there's not much to tell.
  • Weird that they put forth all that effort to pull a Betamax tape out of the world's biggest storage tower.  And seriously, tape backup?  I guess it was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
  • I'm pretty sure that Jakku is not Jedha is not Tatooine, but their travel brochures sure look the same.
  •  X-wings rock!
  • Young Toadroller Jack claims he saw Hera's freighter Ghost in the big space battle.  I wish I'd seen it too.
  • I entirely appreciated the lack of using the old Force crutch to flip every damned switch on and off.  It was a very minor character.  Not a midichlorian to be found.  Lots of good blasters at people's sides, though.
  • That said, it was weird to have the force show up as a mantra-prayer through a blind Tibetan monk-acolyte.  Guided through a firestorm of blaster bolts only to bump into a table?  Awkward.
  • In the same way, it was nice to see a Star Wars movie almost entirely without light-sabers.  Less was more.
  • Vader sounded older, but then James Earl Jones is 40 years on from the original.  His helmet and balaclava at the neck just looked wrong.  
  • In the previews for other films, we saw five previews for sequels to various franchises and one for an original film pretty obviously hoping to become a franchise.  All while waiting for the 8th installment of this franchise.  
  • The force will be with us, always, apparently.

Saturday, December 3, 2016


It was my freshman year in college when, forced to do laundry on my own for the first time, I started making change for quarters.  What good will two dimes and a few pennies do when your weekly budget is somewhere around eight dollars and your bank balance is just under forty?  You need quarters and so you make change for them. 

Fast forward a few years to living on my own in Denver and the challenge was the same: things were tight; I needed quarters.  Whenever I bought something at the local Safeway, I'd pay in cash and add in the extra 13 cents in order to get quarters back.

Along the way, I developed a habit of checking the quarters I received.  In 1976 they coined a bicentennial quarter and they were conspicuous by their difference from all the others.  Easy enough to do: take the quarters in your hand, flip them over and glace at the back-sides.  Drummer-Patriot image?  Fantastic!  A smile on your face.

Over the last decade or so, whenever I've come across one, I've set it aside in a drawer, doing my little part to deflate the currency by slowly take them out of circulation.  I come across one or two a year.  2016 has been a bumper crop.  I've probably received five of them in change. 

Some habits are hard to break.  I still find myself making change for quarters.  It's a satisfying little obsessive-compulsive thing to do.  There's something proper about getting three quarters back from a purchase.  But these days I drop the quarters from my pocket into a big old jar.  Who knows what we'll do with that?  Or when? 

Mrs. Toadroller's mother was diligent about putting quarters into her own (rather large!) piggy bank every week, regularly, for years.  One for each child and maybe one for the coffee pot as well.  As we went through her things, we all had fun stacking, sorting, counting, and finding the occasional rare pre-1965 quarter.  And that fun may have been worth more than the monetary value of the collection.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Charging ahead

If one were optimistic, they'd look at the third alternator in 256,000 miles and 19 years and say, "wow, 123,000 miles per alternator, not bad!"  or "wow, 9.5 years per alternator, not bad!"  The sad truth is I got 252,000 miles and 19 years on the first alternator and 4000 miles and 6 months on the second.

Regardless, it's in.  I may have tweaked my back.  Tomorrow and the weekend will tell.  I did snap a bolt on re-assembly,* and let out an "ahhhh, shit" worthy of Grandpa Toadroller.**   All told, four hours of labor and a quart of lost antifreeze later, she's back where she was a week ago.   She does great shifting gears!  It's still risky to take her out of state, but I'm stupid that way.  I'll keep her local until she proves seaworthy.

Oh, and I just remembered which bolt I didn't tighten.  Dang it.  I think I should be able to drive her up on the ramps and get to it without too much disassembly to access the guilty bolt. 

Is it time, is it a hobby, or is it a lifetime car?

* Because I just knew I was going to snap it but didn't stop.
**You've been given a title!  It was one of those moments when you hear your father's voice in your own.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Here we go again

When last I drove the Thousand Dollar Car, I noted that it was shifting... reluctantly... and ...confusedly...


There are two possibilities.  Firstly, the transmission could be going.  If so, so be it.  The second, and easy to rectify, is that its adaptive learning software has worked itself into a frazzled state.  I searched the internet for the definitive manual reset process, which involves putting the ignition key into the "run" position but not starting the car, holding the gas pedal (not a fancy "accelerator" like the Merc, no; a real, genuine cable driving a throttle body) to the floor for ten seconds as it holds a "full throttle" switch, then a strange combination of turning the key off, letting go, turning the key on, putting your left foot in, pulling it out, and performing the rest of the Hokey Pokey.  Anyway, I did all this and started it up and marveled at how nicely it up and down-shifted to my whims.  Hooray!

Except the battery light was on the whole time.  Deja vu.  In May.  Six months ago. 

I brought her into the garage and accessed the battery compartment in the trunk.  Yup, filled with cold water, easily half-way up the battery.  Batteries don't like cold, and a cold water is happy to sap energy quickly.  I wrestled the battery out of there and scooped/siphoned/sponged the water out of the plastic compartment.  How is it getting in there?  The only place I can think of is the sunroof, but its drains go forward and empty on the front door A pillars.  I ran some water through them to verify they're not blocked.  Back in the compartment, I noticed a small, flat circle stamped into the bottom of the tray.  Could this be a drainage hole, blocked by accumulated soot  through the years?  I grabbed an awl and started scratching.  It wasn't looking promising until I got a little to come up, then a little more.  I was in 3/8ths of an inch when I grabbed a drill bit.  Spin, grab, spin grab and then a breakthrough.  I grabbed a gallon of water and started pouring it in and sure enough, it evacuated down and out by the back wheel.  So there is a drain!

I took the battery over to Autozone and their tester said it was down to 45%; they'd keep it and see if it would take a charge.  Two hours later, they called that it was ready.  Next step: alternator?  Everything hooked back up, 12.6 volts off; 12.1 while running.  Crap! Could a cold, wet battery that won't charge take down an alternator?  Apparently it had.  After 6 months.  Ah well, Autozone was happy to cover it under warranty and put in the order.  I'm sure It will show up in a few days.

In the meantime, she's back in the garage, up on blocks, drying out from the overnight rain (but with a dry battery compartment!), waiting for  me to begin the long sequence of removing the front end to gain enough clearance to relieve the serpentine belt's tensioner enough to slide it off a pully so I can pull the alternator itself.  Probably about two hours of work, maybe a little less now that I've done it... a few times.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Chrome Wheels, Fuel Injected

...and stepping out over the line!

So says Bruce Springsteen in Born to Run.

I swerved down into Harpswell, ME, on the way home from Boston Logan airport and another business trip, and checked out a 2010 Audi S5.  As sexy as coupes come, and pretty much as quick as they do as well.  350 horse, same with torque, and all wheel drive combine to get you to 60 in 4.9.  After driving it, I don't doubt it.

I spent last night and half of today trying to convince myself I want it.

But then I took an hour and put the replacement fuel injector into old blue, the A8, hooked up all the plumbing and wiring and crossed my fingers as I turned the key.  Stumble, stumble, rumble, rumble and then the fuel rails pressurized and the familiar sweet swell and steady, smooth idle of this old soldier of an engine settled in.  Yap, that's what she's supposed to do.  I backed her out of the garage and up onto the road, honked the horn, and gave her some heavy footage.  She just ran away, smooth, refined, competent, quick.

Now that's what I like in a car!  Sorry S5; you're unrefined like a mustang.  And you're not as much fun as this old girl.

I picked up the Mercedes with her new accelerator (not a gas pedal, nay-nay; an accelerator) and pointed her towards home.  After the hour of driving I'd put into the A8, the Merc was simply sterile and boring.  And she'll be headed out the door.

I'll bide my time and wait for the right 2011 A8 to come along.
Keep in mind that the exterior is even more beautiful.
The back seat is pretty nice, too.

It's taken a lot of dates for me to realize that what I want was waiting for me at home all along.  Of course, Mrs. Toadroller was quick to say she'd told me so, and she was right.  Again.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Thousand Dollar Car! Thousand Dollar Car! Thousand Dollar Car!

I am a fool.  I know this; I understand this; I admit this; I share this.

For I own not one but four German cars.  Three of the four-ringed variety and one of the one-ringed, tri-starred variant.  It is a given that, at best, three will be road-worthy at any given time.  There are days like yesterday when that number is reduced to one, and that one not the newest and shiniest of the collection.

Two weeks ago, I embarked on an airport run to Boston in old blue, my thousand dollar car, my precious A8.  I'd been of the "why am I keeping this?" persuasion and felt it was time to give her one last run.   Before I left I swapped on the spare set of snow-tires/wheels I have to test how much of her rumbling is alignment and how much is balance.  Driving down the road at 50 mph showed that alignment is bad; the wheels droned against each other even on fresh pavement.  But as I gathered up momentum to 80mph on the interstate headed south, I was amazed at the smoothness of the ride. Tires in balance, what a concept.  To be perfectly honest, I enjoyed the shit out of that drive to the airport and fell in love with old blue all over again.  Yes, I promised her, I'll spend $100 and get you properly aligned.  I'll get the hole in your exhaust pipe patched.  Together we'll make this journey many times through the winter and let the newer Merc just sit warm and cozy in the garage!  257,000 miles is merely your youth!

I returned from my travels and fetched her from the 6th floor of Boston Logan's parking garage.  Navigating the lefts and rights that hinder your attempts to flee the airport and head north, she started to stumble.  One moment perfect, the next as running on 7 cylinders.  Or as running out of gas.  Shit.  I'd been here before.  She's temperamental about gas - do not let her go low- and when she does, it takes at least 5 gallons down her throat to get her running properly again.  See previous tribulations on this site for more information.  I pulled into the first gas station and loaded her up to the top, simultaneously ruling out one possible cause and raising her retail value a solid 10% 

No dice.  Stumble, rumble. I searched my memory banks and recalled the times it had previously behaved this way.  An Ignition Control Module the first time; ignition coils on the plugs the second.  Screw it.  I kept her in low gears through Revere and Saugus, and held her in 4th for the 150 highway miles to home.  Seven cylinders of insanity.  Not wise, but the car is disposable.  Made it home, parked her at the bottom of the driveway and went to bed.  The problem would be reviewed in the morning.

I recently hopped into Mrs. Toadroller's recently rejuvenated S4 to take one of the elder Toadrollers to work.  As we headed out of the driveway, I thought I heard a scrape.  Three doors down, Mrs. Toadroller phoned to let us know the exhaust system was drooping low, low, low.  Ah, sweet chariot, back to the garage with you.  Sit next to the A8 where she rests with her hood open, engine shrouding and wires spread about the shop.

Yesterday I hopped into the Merc to head to the chiropractor.  I started her up and got a christmas tree of warnings on the dashboard, along with the fairly useless message "Electronic Stability Control system is inoperable.  Consult Owner's Manual."  What?  Shut her off, started her again, same.  Put her into gear and could barely get out of the driveway.  Turned her back into the other side of the driveway and let her sit.

I took the car the boy drives. 

I'm flabbergasted.  The Internet says this Merc issue happens and then goes away.  It doesn't for me.  Battery disconnect/reconnect, fuses; no matter- the ESC is damned well inoperable and no, you won't be able to drive this thing to the shop.  Fine.  You're confined to the corner.  It might be the accelerator, as it is German and wouldn't deign to have a gas pedal.  I'm sure it's fly-by-wire rather than a throttle cable.  Which means a few hundred bucks plus tow.  She is not the car of the decade.  She will not last a year.  There's a feller down in Harpswell with a new enough S5 with appreciable miles, but priced accordingly.  It's got that 4.2 liter V8 I love so much in the A8 and S4.  Are you listening, Mercedes? 

Meanwhile I have an A8 to fix and a droopy tail-piped S4. 

I jacked up the S4 and saw that the metal bracket hanger had rusted off where it was welded to the exhaust.  I jacked the exhaust back up into position and wound her around five times with steel cable.  That will last the ten miles to get her to a shop for a repair.

On to old blue.

It wasn't Ignition Control Modules.  They are cheap through Amazon, however, so I replaced the pair of them and kept the others in my spare parts box.  It wasn't the ignition coils.  That was an adventure in its own way, where the replacement coils were shorter than the originals.  I mean originals.  19 years, 257,000 miles.  They are forgiven and retired now, in the parts box, ready for the dump or for further experimental testing at some future date. 

Computers, codes, internet, thinking.  A martini.  I figured it had to be a fuel injector (also original) or the wiring to it.  Please let it be the injector, as tracing and re-setting that wiring is a fool's errand.  Yes, I am a fool, but I'm not insane.

It took an hour of careful disassembly of fuel lines, fuel rails, fuel injector connectors, vacuum hoses and clips to get a pair of the fuel injectors out.  It is amazing to think those were simply squeezed into place on an assembly line in Germany and haven't been touched since.  Wiggle, wiggle, tug tug and out they came.  Friction and o-rings and retaining clips.  It had been my intent to swap the offending cylinder's fuel injector with another cylinder's and see if the engine warning codes switched to that new cylinder.  I checked the resistance on all the wiring leads to the fuel injectors.  They were all the same.  Good.  Promising.  It then it occurred to me that a fuel injector is basically a solenoid that gets triggered to open a valve.  Why swap them when I can test hem manually?  I took the known good injector and a pair of alligator clips and tapped it to the battery.  Click, click, click.  I took the bad one.  Nada, nada, nada.

It is at times like these that fools break out into a shit eating grin.  Grinning thus, I placed my order for a replacement ($40, Amazon Prime, will be here on Tuesday even if I won't) and took a shower.

The score is two on, two out, and Mercedes is at the bat.  Will she strike out?