Saturday, March 21, 2009


John Kinsella: Is this heaven?
Ray Kinsella: No. It's Iowa.
-Field of Dreams

This isn't exactly what I had in mind.

When I went railroading, I went to Texas. And I loved it. The work was enjoyable and it allowed me to spend a lot of time outdoors and away from the computer. Even when I was at the computer, the sun streamed in through the bay window on the side of the depot where the office sits and trains passed maybe ten feet away. I worked with a great bunch of people. Many of them were old heads, veterans of the Missouri Pacific or Southern Pacific, with a sprinkling of Katy people and one refugee from the Rock Island. These men (and a couple of women) taught me a lot about life, about work, and about railroading. If I'm ever any kind of a railroader, it's because of them.

I would have been content to spend my whole career in Texas. I knew I'd be transferred, but I fully expected I'd be going to Houston, where we have a vast complex of yards and industrial trackage. What I didn't expect was to be offered a chance to transfer to the dispatching ranks. Nor did I expect to take it - but it's a good career move and in the current economy, it seemed like the way to go.

So now I sit in an open cubicle filled with computer screens in a windowless bunker in downtown Omaha, Nebraska.

As I said, this isn't exactly what I had in mind.

Don't get me wrong - the work is still interesting, the people are still good, and (a major plus) the hours are a lot shorter. And I like Omaha. I have a place just across the river in Council Bluffs, Iowa. It sits next to a golf course and gives me a great view of downtown. It reminds me in some respects of Fort Worth - it's relaxed, it has all the big city stuff but isn't so big that you feel lost, it's got a nice downtown area, there's a river, I have friends here. But in other ways it's very different from anywhere I've ever lived before.

I've traveled a lot, but I've always lived in the South, and I've never lived more than a couple of hours from the ocean. Until now, that is. See, I grew up with Southern drawls and tobacco fields in rural North Carolina; I've lived on the southern edge of the northeastern megalopolis, in a sleepy coastal city in Virginia, and in a small town in South Texas. Now I live in a Midwestern city smack-dab in the middle of the country, halfway between Chicago and Denver, a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, where the cornfields stretch off as far as the eye can see and the accents hint of Scandinavia rather than England. It's different.

I have lately had an acute urge to read Thomas Wolfe.

It's not a bad place to live, but I do feel a bit alien here at times. Maybe it's just because I'm still getting used to it. But it is so different from what I've been accustomed to that it's taking some adjustment. There is for me, who has always been close to the water, a sense of geographic isolation that comes from living so far from the sea. I am coastal, the Midwest is solidly terrestrial. It's different.

But it's not different in a bad way, and in some ways it's not very different very different at all. The people here have a lot of the same values as anywhere else in America - faith, family, hard work - that come from a rural heritage, albeit one of a different nature than the ones I knew. The commonalities are greater than the differences. Even so, I notice them.

Is this heaven? No. It's Iowa. But it'll do.

2009 Ford Mustang V6 coupe

Note: this was written in July 2008, but somehow never got posted. It refers to the 2009 model, not the mildly revised 2010 model, which is said to have improved some of the things I didn't like about the 2009 car. And no, I didn't buy one - I ended up with a first-generation Miata instead.

The search for a new car continues...

Certain among those close to me are uncomfortable with the idea of me buying a Mazda MX-5 Miata, a car which I have driven twice and now lust after mightily. Their objection is simple: they think it too small and worry that I'll get squished. If I must have a convertible, they say (and I must), then what about something bigger? What about, say, a Mustang? It's still a convertible, still rear-wheel drive, still available with a manual transmission, if I must have one (and I must), and it's, well, bigger. Less squishable.

So today I went in search of that rarest of beasts: a Mustang convertible with a V6 engine, a manual transmission, and a leather interior. I did not find one. But I did find a coupe with a cloth interior and the appropriate drivetrain, so I decided to make a Bold Move, Drive One, and discover whether Quality is Job One and if there is in fact a Ford in Your (My) Future.

Have you driven a Ford lately? I have.

Let there be no doubt: retro style has reached its peak with the current Ford Mustang. The almost-fastback body, the big chrome emblem on the rear, the three-bar taillights, the three-spoke wheel, the throwback typeface on the gauges - the past melds seamlessly into the present in today's Mustang. But there are awkward elements: the dials rest deep inside their bezels, and while the tachometer is well-positioned, the speedometer lies too far to the right, forcing the driver to turn his head to look at it. The switchgear is simple and intuitive, but oh, that speedometer. And that fastback style does come with a penalty: two enormous blind spots aft of the driver. Lane changes are a test of situational awareness - and faith.

As for the seating arrangements, the rear seats of the current Mustang are as useful as in any other Mustang: they're not. But that's okay; the Mustang isn't about the passenger, it's about the driver. Unfortunately, the cloth seats are rough, unpleasant affairs, not like those found in other Fords. Spend a little extra and get the leather.

The Mustang drives pleasantly enough. There were no twisties to be found, but the steering never attracted any undue attention, either. In fact, it didn't attract any attention. It's properly weighted and linear; the car goes where it's supposed to without undue effort on the driver's part. The 4.0-liter V6 engine is, depending on your perspective, either hopelessly outdated or tried and true; either way, I found its 210 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque enough to motivate the 3350-pound car to extralegal speeds in a reasonably short time. Many buyers will opt for the 4.6-liter V8, with its 300 horsepower, 320 pound-feet of torque, classic muscle-car sound, and bragging rights. The fuel economy penalty is minimal - one mile per gallon separates the automatics, two the manuals - but the V8 commands a $6700 premium up front. Put another way, you can buy a V6 convertible for V8 coupe money. Or you can buy 1675 gallons of $4 gasoline to drive (at the manual V6's 20mpg combined rating) 33,500 miles. We won't even speak of the price of a V8 convertible (hint: it's a lot.)

Where the Mustang's mechanicals disappointed me, however, was in the transmission. Maybe it's the European and Japanese cars I've been testing, but the Mustang's clutch was heavy and the shifter felt notchy and clunky, with long throws and a strong hand required. At one point, rolling in traffic with the clutch fully depressed, the shifter simply refused to go into second gear. Maybe I didn't pull it far enough over, but it took three tries before it would go in gear. I may be an inexperienced manual driver, but that shouldn't happen.

I haven't driven a current convertible, so I don't know if the wind still hammers occupants above 60mph as it does in the previous-generation Mustang I've spent a lot of time in. I am told that it doesn't. Watch this space.

When it appeared in 2005, the current Mustang received many accolades for its styling, improved chassis dynamics, and greater refinement over previous models, all achieved without sacrificing any of the car's essential Mustangness. Those accolades were well-deserved: the current Mustang is a great improvement over the previous car. But to me, it's not good enough. At this price point, I expect more.

Maybe it's a good thing Ford went retro on the current Mustang. Buyers who came of age in during the first muscle-car era will love today's Mustang; it reminds them of all that they loved about the classic Mustangs, with enough creature comforts to keep them happy in their middle age. But as the second muscle- car era draws to a close, ended (once again) by rising gas prices and environmental concerns, the Mustang stands alone. For better or worse, it is - or soon will be - the last great American muscle car. Whether it survives the coming automotive apocalypse remains to be seen.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Heard at the NCAA tournament

"When I think of Wisconsin, I think of physicality."

Really? Because I think of cheese. And beer. And brats. And the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers, and Brett Favre.

I mean, the only physicality I associate with Wisconsin is a fat guy wearing a cheesehead and a Favre jersey (if we're lucky, a painted "4" on his bare chest if we're not), drinking a beer, and grilling a brat outside Lambeau Field before a Packers game on a day cold enough you can see his breath.

I'm just saying, is all.