(Last) Weekly Roundup: A Linc To The Past Edition

They did it when I wasn’t looking, when my back was either turned in entirely feigned disinterest or bent to the work of surviving in the so-called gig economy: they changed what it meant to be rich. I don’t mean the numbers, although it is sobering to think that any one of the modern Illuminati can, and often do, spend in a day what a surgeon or senior attorney could make in a lifetime. I’m talking about the actual existence of the rich, the way they live.

My grandfather, the first John Baruth, was rich. Not by today’s standards, mind you. His home in Clearwater was modestly sized and I am certain he went to his grave without ever having flown private. Rather, he was rich in the way that a small-town surgeon or mid-city attorney used to be rich. He retired in his fifties, played tennis, wore and ate whatever suited him. They knew his name at his club and at his church. He was treated with universal respect. Having worked hard for much of his life, he was generous, serene, and cheerful in wealth.

Today’s rich people exhibit little of that serenity or cheerfulness. They sullenly eschew the sartorial and behavorial trappings of traditional American wealth, such as the fine dresses and elegant disposition, for an aesthetic best described as “about to go running in mildly bad weather.” The goal is to mimic the appearance of perpetual exercise, all the better to accompany the Bezos-esque bobblehead-and-pencil-neck marathoner’s build that one apparently cannot avoid picking up somewhere between open-plan-office and C-suite. The primary social message is: I am successful enough to spend my entire life in some sort of aerobic activity. They snipe at the “uniform” of three-piece Brooks Brothers suit even as they all don completely identical light-blue psuedo-exercise vests and fleeces. I suspect, but cannot confirm, that they view the replacement of American tradecraft clothing with sweatshop polyester garbage as a feature, not a bug.

And then, of course, we have their cars.

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Weekly Roundup: It’s Not A Story The GTI Jedi Would Have Told You Edition

I will admit to being fascinated by vanity plates. I’ve had a few, all of them bad. In fact, now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a genuinely witty one, on my car or others. There is something intrinsically pathetic about wanting people to be impressed or enlightened by your plate. With that said, I also admire the spirit of paying a couple extra bucks to avoid wearing what amounts to a state identification number on your vehicle.

Still. The worst plates are the ones which simply restate the badge on the car, and I’ve been guilty (“E46 3LTR”, “DISCO”) a few times. My old mentor in the pimp game, the Big Dog, was infamous for doing this (“TDI Q7”). He would also make bad puns in steel — “AUDIOS” comes to mind. The worst one he ever had was when he picked up two Range Rover 4.6 Vitesses, one in red and the other in eye-searing yellow. The plate: “TWEETY”.

After seeing the above at a Michigan gas station, however, I’m thinking that “TWEETY” wasn’t that bad.

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Weekly Roundup: It Was All Building Toward Something Edition

Almost eight years ago, I took a weekend gig as music director for a church band in Bellefontaine, Ohio. The rhythm guitarist was a young fellow who had graduated from high school the year before and was drifting unsteadily between minimum-wage jobs in the burned-out old manufacturing town thirty miles northwest of the church. We became fast friends and even after I left the church he would occasionally make the long drive down to play some music and discuss his personal struggles: dying grandparents, lack of health care, general loneliness. The biggest problem he had was that he didn’t know where his life was going. Every time he’d catch on at a factory job, the shift would close or the plant would move. He was in line for a gig at Honda but they had a two year waiting period just to get temp contractor work on the line. In 2012 he enlisted in the Army but that, too, had an eighteen-month waiting period; the economy was so bad here that they had more Ohio kids willing to lose their legs to an IED than they could accommodate in Basic Training.

At the time, I remember telling him something that Randal says in Clerks 2: “Sooner or later, I’ll do something with myself and make my mark. But until then, whatever I do is not a waste of time, it’s all building toward something.” He didn’t really believe me, and I can’t blame him. Eventually, the Army made room for him — but he hated the Army. So when his grandfather died he took compassionate discharge and came home to work at a plastic fork factory. In 2016, his number came up at Honda, and I figured he would finish his life the way a lot of people from that area do: by working for 25 years on the line then buying a $50,000 home in rural Ohio in which to die.

Turns out I was wrong. One of the friends he’d made at the fork factory had a relative who wanted to expand his 18-wheeler roadside service business. So my pal quit his job and bought a 1993-vintage FedEx truck filled with secondhand service tools. That was in November. Now he has an 1800-square-foot shop and two employees, with a third starting next week. He pays himself $15 an hour and puts the rest into the business or into buying property. During the polar vortex they were making between $5k and $7k a day on service calls. He bought his grandfather’s home from the bank and is remodeling it. He also has a Fifties-era Chevy truck that is putting 410 horsepower down at the rear wheels. Most importantly, he’s in the process of signing a service contract with the largest intra-state carrier to use Route 70 in Ohio. (Many of the big companies just run the turnpike up north.)

He thinks he can sustain a $3k daily billing rate. Which means that my plastic-fork-factory friend now has a million-dollar business, well before turning thirty. The contacts he made, the random mechanical tasks he learned when he was bored, the time he spent noodling around on an Eclipse or a ’68 Chevy or his own Saturn SL2: it was all building toward something. All that’s left is to work hard and do the best he can. I believe he will be successful beyond his wildest dreams.

Which reminds me. I have a new job.

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Weekly Roundup: Fourth Place Is the First Winner Edition

I don’t recall when and where I read it, but I remember the impact this phrase had on me at the time: Children are powerless. They are easily hurt, easily damaged, easily broken. Consider, if you will, the USABMX Bluegrass National of this past weekend. It was a purpose-built track in a lovely facility… but there was too much moisture in the dirt, courtesy of an accident during storage and transportation. A layer of muddy sand extruded itself from the track surface. And my sixty-two-pound child with his single-digit body fat and ethereal proportions, always so fast and so capable on concrete or asphalt or a wooden box jump, was stuck on that surface like a butterfly in a Venus flytrap.

He’d won five races in a row going into the weekend, but against the bigger, stronger Southern children he struggled. Always first or second into the initial corner, he would then simply be dragged to a near halt while the competition chopped along. The track conditions affected everybody — on Day One, we had 21 riders in the 46-50 Expert class, on Day Two, just nine of us returned — but it was hardest on the lightest and smallest racers. After barely making the main event on Saturday and finishing sixth of eight riders, John was simply furious. I told him that we had an option: we could cut his gearing by seven percent. It would give him a chance to climb out of the sandy ruts. But he would have to pedal at least seven percent more — this, on a track that was already a few hundred feet longer than anything he’d ridden in almost a year.

“I think,” he replied, “I am okay to try anything.”

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Weekly Roundup: Light At The End Of The Tunnel Edition

I didn’t go to the Detroit Auto Show this year. I’d wanted to go, as this was the last year for a traditional winter event. The next one will be in the summer of 2020. Will anyone care?

The first Detroit Show I attended would have been in 1995, I think — my co-worker “Rodney” talked me into going. My first wife and I made a habit of attending the Charity Ball some time around the turn of the century — in those years before I had a media credential, the charity event was a nice way to pick up an $800 tax deduction and check out the cars without the crush of the madding crowd.

Detroit was always a chance to meet up with people, put faces to names, make friends, meet girls, and get excited about cars again. In the past few years it’s felt a bit dead. People want to blame the weather, but the weather was always bad. What’s changed? In truth, the lack of excitement at the show probably has a lot to do with the now-universal practice of pre-empting the event itself with embargoed and non-embargoed press materials. There was once a time when the people at the show were genuinely shocked, or at least surprised, to see a new car roll out on stage. When it happens nowadays it’s anti-climactic because everyone’s already read the press release and seen the pictures.

Which is not to say that there was a lack of fascinating news at this year’s show…

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Weekly Roundup: My Sweetest Victory Edition

The first time I saw the man in the wheelchair blasting across an empty lot behind the first-turn infield grandstands at Daytona, his hands firmly grasping an odd sort of single-wheeled scooter that pulled the wheelchair along behind it, his longish black hair in electric-current agitation, my attention was focused on the machinery involved. By the time he crossed my field of vision a second time, doing every bit of twenty miles per hour and correcting each skittish twitch of the chair over the parking-lot gravel with a practiced countersteering motion, I took a closer look, noticed that his legs were missing rather than simply immobilized, and realized: It’s Zanardi. Sure enough, when the chair came to a halt at the base of the grandstand stairs, I recognized him by both face and manner: impassive, confident, comfortable in the skin he still owned.

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Weekly Roundup: Midnight Rider Edition

Long live the terminological buccaneer! You probably didn’t notice at the time, but the middle of the Twentieth Century wasn’t just notable for some real humdinger-style global military conflicts both hot and cold; it was also the site of two pitched battles in the EXCITING WORLD OF LITERARY CRITICISM! I put that part in capital letters so it would seem more dramatic.

The first World War, if you will, was between the “Formalists” and the “New Critics”. The Formalists had ruled the roost for a long time, and they believed that you couldn’t understand a book (or poem, or any other “text”) without understanding the author. If you took a high school English class where you were lectured extensively on Herman Melville’s poverty or Toni Morrison’s infallibility, you were the (unwilling target) of watered-down Formalism. The New Critics, on the other hand, had the CRAY CRAY idea that everything you needed to understand a “text” was inside the text itself. They believed that the purest and most intelligent criticism came from treating the text like a found object, the same way we regard something like the Rosetta Stone or the Dead Sea Scrolls.

As an idea, New Criticism was long overdue — and as a way of wedging humanity out of Formalism, it was absolutely necessary. There was just one problem: no text is truly a “found object”. Imagine Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Word being read by someone who doesn’t know what a “flivver” is, or what the line “Ford’s in his flivver” is meant to reference. Actually, you don’t have to imagine that, because it’s happening right now in colleges across America. Our eighteen-year-olds are very skilled at Fortnite and they know the lyrics of Ariana Grande songs the same way people used to know the King James Bible, but they don’t read Robert Browning and they don’t know enough history to identify a “flivver”.

The New Critics would tell you that you can fully understand Brave New World without any of that information. This position was so obviously absurd that it eventually yielded, in a sort of Second World War, to Post-Structuralism, which is obsessed with context. A proper Post-Structuralist reading of Brave New World would require that you know everything that Huxley knew when he wrote the book. This, as you’d imagine, is not easy. In fact, it’s impossible. As a result, there was a long Cold War between the people who could not abide New Criticism or Post-Structuralism. The Cold War was resolved when a milder, more practical version of the Post-Structuralist philosophy was advanced by the eminent critical scholar Northrop Frye in the Sixties. Mr. Frye, who considered himself a “terminological buccaneer”, borrowed and stole liberally from the best aspects of New Criticism and Post-Structuralism to create a workable framework for literary criticism.

Frye shaped the course of “lit-crit” from 1960 to 2005 or so, at which point gender and race theories became all-powerful, effectively terminating our culture’s chances of obtaining any further understanding of literature on any basis that is not directly related to university-grade progressive dogma. Our schools are busy teaching themselves to forget proper criticism, which is why today’s readers are drowning in a tsunami of young-adult trash and third-tier feeling-junkies like Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman. We simply don’t know any better, and deliberately so.

Happily for Frye, he did not live to see this stupidity become canoncical. He died in 1991 with his position as the first man of literary criticism utterly secured, believing that he would continue to influence the way thoughtful men read books for decades to come. He may have even influenced you — Frye was often tapped to assemble anthologies of literature and/or criticism for undergraduate education. His influence on me was somewhat more direct. One of Frye’s most devoted students was a fellow named Edward Tomarken, who in turn became my faculty mentor and life-long friend some twenty-six years ago. “Eddie” and Frye maintained a personal correspondence until Frye’s death. I, in turn, continue to meet Eddie once a year or so either in Florida or at his home outside London. Which goes a long way toward explaining why I have a hyper-critical attitude towards automotive journalism; once you’ve learned to thoroughly disassemble a brilliant writer like Alexander Pope or William Makepeace Thackeray, reading the dreck in today’s car magazines is like sticking your hands elbow-deep into a construction-site latrine.

It might also explain why one of my son’s Christmas presents led to the two of us having an uncomfortable conversation about prison snitches.

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(Last) Weekly Roundup: Masculine Fragility Edition

As cultural headshots go, the idea of “fragile masculinity” is just about perfect. Grown from the Marxist concept of hegemonic masculinity, it adopts Saul Alinsky’s fifth Rule For Radicals (“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon”) to associate the legitimately risible — “Is it gay to use scented soap?” — with the traditionally male — “Shouldn’t I, the husband, have the final authority in my house?” Naturally, the media uses it with abandon, creating the hashtag #MasculinitySoFragile to drive the nails into the coffin just that much further in hopes of immanentizing the eschaton before the 2020 election.

You suffer from fragile masculinity if you voted for Trump, at least according to the Post, which published a study on the topic. (Even if you’re a woman.) If you disapprove of relaxing the standards applied to firefighters or SWAT troops or Green Berets so more women can qualify, your masculinity is fragile. If you own a gun… well, I’m literally shaking right now, I can’t even, wow just wow. In fact, if you are any more conventionally “manly” than the nu-male in the Swagger Wagon ad, you have gone right past Fragile Masculinity, all the way to Toxic Masculinity. Even African-American men can suffer from Fragile Masculinity, although in their case it was. apparently, forced upon them by white men.

Expressing dissatisfaction with the idea of fragile masculinity is also, you guessed it, a sign of fragile masculinity. Pay no attention to the non-binary character behind the curtain. If you see something, say nothing.

Ah, but this isn’t the Fragile Masculinity Edition of Weekly Roundup, it’s the Masculine Fragility Edition. Which, as you will see, means something quite different.

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Weekly Roundup: Today In Naples Edition

BO KNOWS. If you are a man of, shall we say, a certain age, you most likely recall the Nike ad campaign from 1989 that suggested Bo Jackson wasn’t just a sui generis athlete with professional-level talent in both football and baseball, but that he was brilliant at a variety of other sports, such as road cycling, hockey, and surfing. The irony of the campaign is that the sporting press crucified Jackson for being a two-sport superstar quite a bit more often than they lionized him for it. “Pick one or the other,” they’d screech, with the common opinion being that Jackson should focus on baseball since it paid better and rarely crippled its participants. After a career-ending football injury, Jackson spent four more years playing baseball before retiring at the age of thirty-two.

Jackson was neither the first nor the last casualty of our collective national unwillingness to allow the famous or talented to escape their pigeonholes. Be an NFL player or a major league slugger — but under no circumstances should you be both. We like to freeze people at the moment they enter the national imagination. Any attempt to deviate from that results in opprobrium at best and obscurity at worst. Ask Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell… or Marcus Mumford. On exceptionally rare occasions, we will permit a move from rapping to acting (cf. Ice Cube, Ice-T) but attempts to move in the other direction are treated as comic relief.

Kenny Gorelick, aka Kenny G, made a name for himself as a smooth-jazz superstar, earning a sharp diss track from Pat Metheny in the process. At the age of forty-two, he decided to veer back towards the “real jazz” that he played in his youth. No such luck. So he returned to the smooth jazz, with a roundly ridiculed detour into investment management. Today, he’s back out there playing the music people want to hear, which is the music he recorded a quarter-century ago.

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(Last) Weekly Roundup: The Drive-Through Edition

In the words of the great Detroit-area bard, it seems like yesterday / but it was long ago. On Tuesday, September 23, 2008, I drove over to Midwestern Auto Group in Dublin, Ohio and signed the papers on my vaguely-famous lime-green Audi S5. As excited as I was about the car, it was just one in a long string of deliveries from that store, starting with my four-speed Fox in the spring of 1990 and encompassing about a dozen cars in the eighteen years that followed. Volkswagens, Rovers, Audis, a Saab, a Bimmer. My mentor and business partner of a decade ago was an even more dedicated customer, signing at least one but usually two leases per year there. It wasn’t just his company cars, of which he usually had three at any given moment. Every time he broke up with a woman, this deeply sentimental fellow would lease her a BMW or Volvo convertible as a parting gift, leading to no shortage of jokes on my part about these chicks “upgrading their rides”. My father, too, was a frequent flier at “MAG”. We knew the general manager, the service writers, the top-performing salespeople, and the occasionally fascinating dealership owner. It seemed reasonable to assume that I would continue to be one of the store’s best customers for a long time to come.

Do you remember / the twenty-third day of September, ten years ago? I do now, because that was the end of the party, and I never bought a car from Midwestern Auto Group again.

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