Saturday, December 06, 2008


Dearest reader(s),

I deeply apologize for the sparse output lately over the past several months. I've been nearly as awful a reader too, and I'm even more sorry for that. There's work, and that's one excuse, but it's really more the recurring awareness of my own basic idiocy that keeps me down, that dreaded and unwelcome knowledge that, despite my buffed veneer of knowitallism and that carefully rehearsed cynical smirk I so like to flash around, I'm not fit for even the most quotidian aspects of life planning, the results of which inadequacy have left me impoverished, down a car, and too full of self-loathing to haul myself out of bed, never mind over to the computer to scrawl out my signature mentobabble.

I've been robbed, my friends! Used! If traffic cops sometimes let me off with warnings for looking like such a goofy, sincere young man,* that gullible visage of mine is like pink meat to the confidence artists of the world, and they are legion, lurking behind every form, infiltrating august institutions like parasites. And my defenses are weak.

Scam the first: If you grew up in a certain small, liberal (sort of), Northeastern state (hi twif), you may remember the public health measures routinely administered to grade school students. I remember the primary years as an endless succession of dispassionate headphone tests, finger pricks, colored dots and sideways Es, and hair toothpicks. (I remain proudly cootie-free to this day.) Of these, the dental visits were the most fun. Yeah, the "swish" was dumb, but once a year, we got to waste half a day in the auditorium watching 8-mm films of tooth-brushing propaganda, and then they sent us home with those awesome red chewie tablets that allegedly revealed plaque deposits, and which we (naturally) used to concoct vampire dramas on the school bus or wasted in efforts to alarm Mom when we walked in the door.

The grand picture of public health was never appreciated by the eight-year-olds, or not this one, and I can't say that I've spent much time since thinking how it was all paid for. If pressed these days, I'd guess some sort of minor, half-assed health measure ponied up by the state, which probably did less good than intended (though we're all happy the lice outbreaks were controlled), but not a hell of a lot of harm, considering. Nor even a lot of cost: how much for an eye chart, and the school nurse could only spend so much time on her nails.

So when my darling C. stuck the permission slip in front of my nose (that very morning of course, while running fifteen minutes late already) a couple months ago, I didn't think much of signing it. We're more litigious these days, and more cost-conscious. If they can convince my dental insurance to pay for a portion of the overpriced jug of fluoride rinse and for someone certified to administer the squirt pump, then I can live with it. (And if I have to pay thirty bucks to do it, that's okay too.) And among a population that fights every public fluoridation proposal with voluble ignorance, I figured it was just less trouble to tally the people who would opt into a fluoride program in this silly burg. Naive assumptions, all of them (well, except for the "silly").

Turns out the "fluoride rinse" I signed junior into was actually a group of visiting dentists, swarming the local schools to provide oral exams and some sort of tooth sealing that is quite beyond the "fluoride rinse" indicated on the very brief form (which of course I had reserved no copy of, and which, of course, is not held through any official school channels). Now, why anybody would want an allegedly comprehensive oral exam to be administered at school when you have dental insurance that lets you do said exam in a place with, you know, dental care facilities, is beyond me. I rather resent the insinuation from my phone conversation with this office that people opportunistically jump at free medical care, and also resent the fact that they contacted my insurance company, who told them that C. had very recently had the same exam performed, the result of which was a hasty action to make sure they got their bill in before my regular dentist did, the insurance co. having understandable limits on the number of those sorts of procedures in a given year. I thought I was signing her up to swish.

Why would dentists visit schools to administer "comprehensive" oral exams? The only honest reason I can think of is charity, in which case there's no need to talk to the insured kids in the first place. The more likely reason, is that their scamming some bucks out of schools and worried parents in a semi-legal operation. This is probably why they use second graders to disseminate their dubious information instead of school staff. The cost of this is about $150, an angry dentist, and enough fluoride in my daughter to effectuate the worst possible government mind control schemes.

That, and now I have a little red S in the lower right-hand corner of my credit report.

Scam the second: The main reason I still have the Citibank card I held in college is that it sports a great old picture of me. ("That's you? You look so...happy.") Also for emergencies, uh, yeah, that too. Back in those ancient times, I somehow** agreed to buy "Protection Plus," a plan which evidently offers insurance beyond my normal legal recourse against identity theft and credit fraud. They sent a letter saying that I had to call them to cancel the useless service, which would otherwise appear on my credit card bill. Protection Plus keeps tighter bank hours than Citibank dreams of (Citi, for whatever its other sins, features live, articulate and accommodating customer service people who are available 24/7), and they were hard to reach for the day or two their threat remained on top of the pile. Before long I forgot about trying, and as promised, a prurient $70 charge popped up on my 5-years-celibate Citi account.

I paid the damn thing, fearing late fees and a little black D next to the red S more than I worry about the loss of 70 beans and my dignity. I'm not enthused about the two dozen phone calls it'll take to abolish these fuckers from my life, and it's not a remote possibility that I'll eventually forget about them in the absence of any new Citi bills. I suppose I could actually accept and utilize the "service" Protection Plus renders, but for some reason I don't want to give these assholes my other credit card numbers.

Like many scams, it was a play on my vanity, however indirect, but it didn't stop me from falling for it. I am unfit for the public.

Scam the third: I didn't buy an American car from any patriotic impulse. It's just that after some minimal research, the Chrysler dealership was the closest place that sold minivans and luckily, I was able gimp my old (and short-lived) Toyota there before the boiler exploded. (Did I really want a minivan? Does anyone ever?) I drove out of there with the same model that Consumer Reports now places on its worst of the worst list, but who knew that then, and it was indeed spacious, and over the years, it trucked a lot of drywall.

Our T&C has suffered electrical hiccups since we've owned it, and we've entered that glorious stage when the monthly repair bill costs more than the loan payment used to. It's been predictable and inevitable stuff, brakes and suspension and, reaching back to plug myself, some shit rotting underneath, but rapid-fire proximity of auto disasters can work up some mighty distrust. That vehicular suspicion is much stronger in my wife than myself, and my doubt in her opinion is why I was driving that enormous shitbox as it shuddered through its final roadworthy lurches. Oh, those clunks really are noisy, just like she said. Whiiirrrrr! She didn't mention that. The engine's revving, huh. Wow, now I'm not going anywhere at all, ten miles from home.

The failure to move was, it turned out, a failure to transmit, if you catch my meaning, and the knocks and creaks were (yet another) suspension issue and haven't been addressed. The mechanic disassembled the transmission, discovered a missing o-ring on the filter (!), and suggested we hold off on the suspension repair. He did this to build trust, I'm sure, and he even cited the golden rule in his reasoning. The o-ring was, he acknowledged, a hopeful band-aid, but it seemed to be running fine for the time being.

Now, I really like my mechanic, or at least I want to really like him. He is, unlike some of these guys, very easy to talk to when you can reach him, quietly confident, and he has one of these bright, open faces I feel inclined to trust. He's also a local institution, which has to speak for something. On the other hand, he's a mechanic, and as such, he's a nemesis, just itching to ream me with his information asymmetry, and as a general rule, I always try to imagine how the garage might be screwing me anyway. One of the previous times he worked on it, he kindly alerted me to some other problems (alarm bells!), which I let him work on (sucker! rube!), but he just doesn't seem as shifty all those other mechanics (fool!).

If I had more brains and less conscience, I'd have rolled that duct-taped tranny to the nearest dealer for a trade-in, but I unwisely hoped for the best. The repair held up for a weekend. On Monday, on my way to work, the transmission shuffled its coil (spring, pulley, valve, etc.) with a more dramatic flourish--it felt something like hitting a speed bump at sixty--and those gears no longer spun ineffectually, they ground ineffectually as the engine impotently revved. It's now back in the shop facing a $3100 repair, not to mention the certain death that's still looming unrelated in the rattling front end. Did I mention it only has 107,000 miles? Fuck Chrysler anyway.

I'm clearly not going to do this repair: the car is worth less than three grand, and I'm not even sure a new transaxle will do the trick (I wouldn't rule out the persistent electrical problems as the root cause of this). The second breakdown was a lot more dramatic than the first, and I can't shake the nasty questions: did my mechanic soak me for the first $200 realizing that he'd be out for the larger repair, realizing no sane person would put a new transmission in that rolling turd? Did the first repair make it deliberately worse, make a new transmission unavoidable? It's reasonable that the quick fix was made in good faith too--it's not like he lied to me about it doing the trick. These are worrisome, expensive questions, and to my disadvantage, I'm obviously not mentally equipped to deal with quick-witted repair people, especially not nice ones.

I summarize, dear reader, that I am one of nature's dupes. With this insight, I'm preparing to spend the morning at the Honda dealership shopping for a highly priced used Civic or Accord, at least if my credit report isn't too marked up. (This is based, on the off chance anyone's curious, on Honda's general reputation for reliability, and the fact that my rotting 10-year-old '87 Accord was the only awful car I drove that I ever liked.) I mean, surely I can trust a used car salesman, right? I'll be sure to let my mechanic take a look at it.



* As a matter of fact, I am also plagued by the real injustices that this petty whine contrasts. Awareness is a rough ride.

** Yeah, somehow. Probably something associated with my being a dope. I feel like I'm narrowing in on it.


dogscratcher said...

I've been lucky with the Accord I have: just shy of 200,000 miles and still seemingly runs fine (but with that kind of mileage, it's got to be just a matter of time).

Keifus said...

Hi dogscratcher (and welcome back by the look of it).

Dealing with a salesman when you're in a serious bind is no way to buy a car. I got the hard sell away from the promo deal that lured me down, but I suppose it could have been worse. I got an '06 Accord with 30 kmi, and I am reliability like you describe is what I'm hoping for.

Archaeopteryx said...

It's not a coincidence that the American car companies are going belly up, and Toyotas and Hondas last 200000 miles.

I spent some time today negotiating with plumbers. When water is coming into your house, they can tell you any number they want. And they know it.

Sometimes life sucks.

Keifus said...

Nah, I can keep it in perspective. For half the world or more, life sucks. I'm just really irritated and my convenience falls short of my reasonable expectations.


hipparchia said...

not to laugh at your troubles, but this is the funniest thing i've read all holiday season! thanks for the pick-me-up.

my toyota was the best car i ever had, but it's hard to go wrong with hondas. they really do last. i've had a couple of chances to buy a nice [gently] used civic, but each time i wasn't quite ready to give up on the car i had.

word verification for this one? sated. i kid you not.