March 28, 2011

When Parts is More Than Parts

Today, I crossed a major threshold of adulthood and motor-head maturation. I inquired about parts for my car. Not just any parts, but after-market performance suspension parts that until recently I could not adequately describe if asked even basic questions. I emailed the customer service reps at two major after-market suppliers for BMWs with reasonably cogent questions about parts that I will purchase from them for sums of money that I previously would have reserved for house payments, the acquisition of large amounts of luxury fibers (think qiviut), or rare-breed puppies (cough *Sabine* cough).

It took a bit for me, I will admit, to email these anonymous sources of automotive wizardry. I pictured the under-employed, track-rat, mid-twenties male service reps on the receiving end scoffing at my lowly 325xi and the silly soccer mom who wants to know about bump stops and front strut mounts. "It's not an M3 or 335i ...why is she bothering?" I would imagine. "Stainless steel braided brake lines for *that* model? Preposterous!"

"Screw it!" I thought, "I'm asking the damn question."

And I did. Several questions, in fact, and I received prompt, courteous and informative responses from male service reps of indeterminate age and unknown weekend pursuits. After all the angst ... it's really just about the cars and making a sale. So shortly I will order a Bilstein Sport Strut & Shock set, as well as H&R Sport springs, stainless steel braided brake lines, rear brake pads, and a mildly naughty air filter (really, really mild ... I drive some dusty roads). I'm not linking to those last two, because they are kind of boring.

Where I'm truly throwing caution to the wind here is that these upgrades will kick me out of D Stock for autocross and into the Street Touring (ST) class. ST is the domain of racer-boys and grizzled veterans, only surpassed by Street Prepared (SP) . I'm a novice in a small commuter sedan with only moderate horsepower (215 bhp) and a predisposition to AWD weight. I am under no delusions about my prospects for the next season if I run this car. Many, many competitors will blow my modest times out of the water. To be honest, though, I wasn't that competitive in D Stock and my region does not run a novice class. So I can suck in ST just as well as in D Stock, and still mod my car as I want to for the other 99.5% of the driving I do.

And point to the pretty blue and yellow parts peeking out from underneath my skirts. Ain't nothing wrong with a sleeper.

January 25, 2011

Two More From The Road

How could I forget these choice commuter moments?

1. At the end of a very long line of red tail lights heading off into incipient suburbia, I feel like a lemming.

2. I will never win the war against road salt from the position of a small sedan. A trip through the carwash is a minor skirmish, always followed by a major defeat delivered via a large truck or SUV with no mud flaps.

posted from Bloggeroid

January 18, 2011

A Post In Which I Mention Nothing Automotive

I am not always very forthcoming about major life events, and this blog is no exception. There is not enough of a cloak of anonymity for me to reveal that which you would not get from me in everyday conversation, and generally this does not bother me. However, one event approximately eighteen months ago did impact the progress of this blog significantly. My family moved, to attend to some long-term health issues plaguing several close relations. Since theirs are not my stories to tell, I probably won't be discussing much of these separate situations here. It's taken me over a year, though, to comprehend just how significant the move was, even though it was to a community and home that I have know most of my life. All told, the physical move was a distance of fewer than forty miles. Psychologically, it was like moving from one continent to another. The move was planned, reasonably well-executed, and has all sorts of advantages for both my immediate and extended family, and on the whole has turned out well. It brings me joy to be back in my childhood home and closer to the people and places that shaped me. Despite all this, I gained a reasonable commute and lost almost two hours in each day that otherwise would support the "extras" in life ... including this blog. I've gained some of that time back; taken it, really, and now am picking up the pieces of what I dropped to make the move happen and my children thrive. I moved a lot as a child, and while I can pinpoint very specific strengths that this history gave me (adaptability, curiosity about new places, a predilection for travel), I also know all too well how painful the experience can be. All told, I finally feel as if we have come through to the other side. There are still a few significant loose ends, however, not the least of which is our previous house.

We still own our former home, and are completing renovation work that we began (irresponsibly, perhaps) the first weekend we moved in and when I was six months pregnant with Miles. I work close to the property so I check in frequently, and the neighborhood is very close-knit and vigilant. This afternoon I stopped by to pick up a few items and to check on the status of the work that will hopefully render the home fit for sale. (Wisely, we finally gave up on doing the drywall and interior trim work on our own). It is so hard, though, to pull into that driveway and not experience a visceral rush of expectations. It is a beguiling hallucination. As I open the car door (really, that's just a casual reference) I expect to hear chickens conversing in the yard and the rush of greeting dogs coming to the door. It is my home; it is no longer my home. The kitchen does not smell of cooking or contain the chaos of children. The garden is a bit wild, even in its dormant period. The air is still, quiet and dusty. But the light, the same late afternoon winter light that we saw when we made an offer on the house, and that I love about both the home and the location, the light is still the same. I couldn't do it justice in either words or pictures if I tried; you have to see the Finger Lakes upland light that glances off the lakes and bare winter fields to know what I'm talking about. It was that light that filled the bedrooms of the home most afternoons with warmth and potential. It was that light that I would wake to after napping with my babies, when we both fell asleep as they nursed. It was light that would find its way behind closed eyelids, gently prying me away from sleep and towards an evening of dinner and baths and bedtime stories. It always catches me off-guard and leaves me wondering what I really miss. I certainly don't think that life was as idyllic then as it appears in retrospect. We fought, grumbled, fussed about money, ignored ongoing projects, yelled and fell into all the traps of most couples and families. But my babies were tiny in that house, my big dog was alive in that house, and it was the center of our family for about seven years. It would be easier if I could let go cleanly and turn it over to new residents, but we can't quite yet, and so I won't stop missing it yet.

It is not a home that I ever expected to be nostalgic about. It is an unassuming ranch with drafty windows, a crawlspace (ugh!), one bathroom and one-too-few bedrooms. I suspect that what I need is to become reacquainted with that light. Physically, it is there. I am starting to find it in early mornings, with dawn over a different lake, in a different room, with a different arrangement of family. It bothers me that I don't have a plan to make sure that everything turns out fine, and that all loose ends are tidily secured. That isn't real life, though, and as attractive as the intimacy of a former home is, ultimately it is empty of where I am now. Still, it contains so much of where I have been.

January 15, 2011

The iPod Convert Returns: The Automotive Edition

I spent a year commuting in a baser-than-base 1989 GMC Sierra 1500 pick-up truck. So base, in fact, that it is a radio-delete model. After a few lame attempts at hooking my iPod up to a portable speaker, I gave up and just drove. The driver's side window has a tendency to "settle" as you drive, which doesn't help the interior acoustics. Just me, my thoughts, a little wind noise and the echo of a 160 hp V-6 off the massive interior engine bay. They were good times, in their own way. I still own and love the truck, but it is no longer the daily commuter. I've been pretty excited to rejoin the land of stereo, the CD, and an audio input port. I'm exploring new podcasts, and here are a few of my favorites along the automotive theme.

I was initially unsure about this podcast. So much time is spent discussing new models in the press fleet, with a fair amount of air devoted to domestic manufacturers pedestrian models (Jeep? Really? Please don't speak to me of the Patriot). One of the hosts owns a Nissan Juke, which in my mind doesn't bode well for overall judgement, or at least aesthetic sensibilities. However, it dawned on me that the podcast presents a decent reflection of the reality of the automotive industry. It's not all exotics and performance models. It is refreshing, nay, bracing, to hear an automotive journalist extol the virtues of a minivan or a crossover for its functionality and ability to serve the needs of a family. They speak of carseats and cheerios without sneering. There are very few "soccer mom" slurs, and I have learned so much from listening to the often circuitous discussions and cackling side-commentary of the co-hosts. There are some egos and stubbornly held positions, and occasionally they stray off into the quicksand of macro-economic analysis. These forays are not advisable. But a podcast would be dry as dirt without personalities that can punch through the medium, and pretty much everyone is confused about globalization and the shift from a manufacturing to a knowledge economy. The hosts have taught me what A, B, C and even D pillars are, introduced me to the concept of a "refresh," and generally are not caught up in the pseudo-glamor of some automotive commentary and motorsports hangers-on. They are clearly enthusiasts, but they know and appreciate the value of a daily driver, usable cargo space, soft finishes on high-touch surfaces and affordability. I many not always agree with them, but I like them a lot and find that I look forward to the weekly podcasts in with anticipation previously reserved for Cast On, Stash and Burn, and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Who knew? Certainly not me ...I knew next to nothing about domestic production before this, and frankly didn't care a whole lot either. Now I think that I'd actually look forward to seeing a Chrysler 300 in person, or appreciate the finer qualities of a Traverse (maybe). The parent website is decent, but frankly I prefer the podcast for guys getting stupid about cars.

Part of the sprawling ACE Broadcasting network, Carcast features the known motorhead and part-time racer Adam Carolla and Sandy Ganz, trusty side-kick. The downside to this podcast is that it is not safe for kids, work, or attacks of most reasonably sensibilities. I've never been that into Adam Carolla's shtick, but neither have I been part of his target demographic, so no great loss to either of us. With CarCast, though, Adam becomes the fan and drops most of the persona. (I'd say it's his best work). The discussions on vintage racing are fascinating, and Adam's interview style does tend to get a bit more out of the interviewees unless a rant escapes and takes over. I'm not always in the mood to tolerate gleeful male stupidity in my own damn car, but when my tolerance is high and my mood forgiving, it makes for a good listen. The car info is often pretty good, and it's nice to hear someone else apologetically admit their weaknesses in the face of an obsession that can't bear the scrutiny of logic (or a spouse). I wouldn't ask him for advice about women or politics, but amateur racing, mods and Datsun/Nissan Z-cars he's got down. And I like Sandy, too.

I think of the Bimmerfile podcast as a bit of boutique piece. It's obsessively focused on BMWs, and the approach is a tad patrician. I'm not always in the mood for this one, but if you want to filter out the other automotive noise and get caught up on all things BMW, I'd say this is the place to start. Downsides include some lousy (although improving) sound quality, the aforementioned country club vibe, and for now repeat mentions of one of the co-host's 1 series M coupe (on order). On the last item, I'm probably just jealous and I would have chosen the Valencia Orange. Alpine White does nothing for me. Upsides include a serious load of insider information, a clear love of the marque, and co-hosts that know how to pace a podcast (as long as you can hear them). I've learned more about BMW, new technologies and the trajectory of the company since listening, and also gained an appreciation for where my pedestrian 3-series sits in the Bimmer universe. The website has way more info that I can take in at one time, but it's pretty enjoyable when all you want is BMW.

January 12, 2011

Observations From an Upstate NY Commute

1) Even if a Porsche Cayenne *looks* like a Santa Fe from its bulbous rear, it can still smoke your ass from a stop-light. Beware.

2) Nissan should choose some other form of innovation and lose the phosphorescent slugs that grace the front of the Juke. I can't even imagine how that particular feature made it into production. What do they do? Glow eerily in spelunking expeditions?

3) A Dodge Neon is never, ever the right answer to the question "What should I spend my hard-earned money on?" Also, say no to the Caliber. In fact, maybe there's a Dodge theme here.

4) Even with a king-cab and a car seat, a Ford F-350 is not a family vehicle.

5) 37 miles one-way in a 2003 Toyota Sienna Minivan kinda sucks, unless you actually have the kids in the car. Then you understand why there is so much separation between you and them.

6) 37 miles one-way in a 2006 BMW 325xi almost never sucks, unless you actually have the kids in the car. Then you wistfully recall the interior separation of the minivan.

7) When did the Ford Taurus become attractive? Dear God, am I that old?

8) Just pull the home-built dirt-track racer back into the barn for the winter. I can't even see the "For Sale" sign underneath all the snow. And the very idea seems too damn cold.

9) An informal survey of Honda Civics of a certain age: body kit, body kit, grad student, rust. Also found in various combinations (body kit/rust or rust/grad student), but rarely body kit/grad student.

10) Tire pressure lights never turn on in good weather, unless the only available pull-off is verdant with poison ivy. Otherwise, be prepared to peer at each tire suspiciously through the slush, and then check all four anyway.