Sunday, June 29, 2014

The sad sordid saga of truck 21392

When I went on vacation in March, the truck I was driving, a trusty 2012 Freightliner Cascadia that hadn't given me a lick of trouble in a year of driving, was given to another driver because, well, the company can't have a truck in the fleet idle for 10 days. Unfortunately, I didn't know this was going to happen until I was on vacation, and all of my stuff in the truck was packed in boxes and stored at the company terminal.

Upon my return, I was reunited with most of my stuff, sans the $150 bluetooth headset, which somehow got "lost" in the transition. And the truck I was assigned, a 2012 Peterbilt, the now infamous 21392, entered my life.

This upset me right off the bat. In addition to losing my headset, the Pete was previously driven by a smoker, and the ash tray still contained residue and evidence of this filthy habit. The entire cab also reeked of it. An insert in the shifter knob was missing, so the spot where I would rest my palm when shifting was a sharp divot. The entire time I drove this truck, I had to shift holding on to the sides of the knob. And one of the two small storage lockers had a door that was off its hinges, which meant I couldn't store anything in it that would slide out. It was essentially useless. But I am a regional driver. I am home every weekend. So I don't keep a lot of stuff in my truck. This was the least of my concerns.

I drove this truck first on the night of March 31. The next morning, as I stopped at a shipper to pick up my return load to Illinois, the truck wouldn't start. I was at the gate to the shipper. This meant that every couple minutes, a truck would turn to go into the gate, honk their horn for me to move on, get out and angrily approach the vehicle, and I would help them back out onto the road so they could go in through the out gate. I tried standing by the back of the trailer to ward drivers off, but it was brutally cold that day, with temps in the teens, and I didn't have a hat, so I had to return to the truck.

Within a couple hours, help arrived, and the mechanic got me started. "Don't turn off the engine. It won't start again if you do. Go directly to a shop. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200."

I spent a pleasant evening in De Pere, WI, and got rolling again the next day with a new starter.

Truck 21392 rolled steadily along for a few weeks, but then developed problems the first couple weeks in May. I noticed a steel on steel grinding noise when I backed up or rolled over uneven ground, kind of like the sound railroad wheels make. Oh, well, I thought, no biggie. I'll mention that the next time its up for preventive maintenance and an oil change. A week later, the truck stopped burning diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), what truckers call Cow Piss because it is made out of urea and puts out an ammonia-like smell. All newer trucks are equipped with DEF because it cuts out particulates in exhaust. No smoke comes out. Just carbon dioxide. Again, I figured. I'm due for an oil change real soon, so I'll wait...

The next day a fuse went out and the trailer clearance and license plate lights wouldn't light. This was a stopper. A cop could see this and pull me over. This put me out of Department of Transportation (DOT) compliance and I would be cited and ticketed on a roadside safety inspection. It was finally time to put the truck in the shop.

The DEF issue and blown fuse were easy fixes, but the grinding noise I'd heard was the engine block rubbing against the axle. The motor had slipped from its mounting and needed a new motor mount, which is a major job. The truck, still under warranty, was sent to a dealership, and I drove a day cab (semi without a sleeper berth) for two weeks, getting a hotel voucher each day to sleep. Even though the day cab leaked coolant and DEF, requiring daily refillings, I liked the hotel vouchers and stocked up on soap, shampoo, and stationary. A hotel room is a much nicer accomodation than the sleeper berth of a truck.

When I got truck 21392 back after two weeks, the first thing I noticed is that the windows wouldn't go down. And when I pressed the buttons to make the windows go down, the mirror defrost lit up on my dash. Also, I couldn't cut out all the power in the truck using the master switch. Usually, if there's a problem with the onboard computer or electrical systems in the semi, shutting everything down and starting it back up resolves the issue. I didn't have this option. Somehow, during the motor mount repair, wires got crossed. The electrical system was all messed.

But this wasn't a stopper. The air conditioning worked. I could open the passenger side window from the passenger side. I could live with these problems.

The first morning after getting the truck back, just as I pulled onto the highway, laden heavy with a 20 ton load, all my emergency bells and whistles went off, and I had to immediately pull over. All of my coolant had spilled onto the roadway. The same mechanic who'd got me started at the shipper gate April 1 came back and reattached the radiator hose which had a broken clamp and had come undone.

Then the phantom starter debacle began. When I first had a problem with it, it wouldn't stop at the company terminal. When I put in the repair order, the mechanic came out and the truck started right up. I felt foolish. But the next day at a shipper, the starter gave out again and I couldn't restart it. Roadside assistance came out and the mechanic got the truck started by simply boosting the battery voltage.

Thus began a two-week saga of trying to convince the shop there was something wrong with my truck. I wouldn't be able to get the truck started. I would take it to the shop, put in a repair order. They'd get it started right away, do nothing, and declare it fixed. I'd get it back, go out on the road, and get stranded again when the starter gave out.

This happened four times.

A shop tech accused me of making up the problem to get out of work. I said, no, I really need the money. I'd rather be driving.

Finally, I said, I refuse to drive this truck unless an actual repair is done. I then said I thought it was an electrical issue, maybe somehow connected to the issue with the windows (which they'd fixed). Frustrated, a shop tech called me and said they'd been starting the truck all weekend, indoors and out, and had used every diagnostic tool they had, but couldn't find anything wrong.

I said, just put a light on in the cab for a few minutes with engine off and try to start it. I was running on a hunch, thinking this was what I'd done every time the truck wouldn't start.

VOILA! They couldn't get the truck started. This helped them figure out the problem was a bad alternator signal cable, which connects between the alternator and starter. I said to the shop tech, "See. I'm not crazy after all." He said, "You were right. There was something wrong with your truck. But the verdict's still out on your sanity." Funny guy.

I drove six days in a row without any problems. Finally, as I was leaving a shipper last Thursday morning, the stop engine light went on and I couldn't drive faster than 5 MPH. I limped to a truck stop and put in a request for roadside assistance. The culprit this time was a faulty emissions sensor, a microchip device used to make sure my emissions met EPA standards.

Finally.... Enough was enough. I shared a rental vehicle with another driver and sent down to Mississippi to pick up a new truck, a brand new 2015 Freightliner Cascadia. Hopefully, if the trucking gods will it, I can put the last couple months of breakdown issues behind me and roll smoothly for awhile.

The worst thing about this whole debacle is I after I awhile I mistrusted my equipment and approached each night of driving with a dreaded sense of apprehension. That is no fun. Neither is being broke down by the side of the road.

Patience has paid off, though, and may my new truck, dubbed Red Sonja Redux, be a boon companion for many a mile.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Wireless Wrong: My Verizon Debacle

Last Sunday, my Droid DNA phone would not charge and ran out of power. I took it to my local Verizon store in Sycamore, IL, and asked what I could do to either get another phone or get my current one fixed. The clerk there told me that, because I was six months short of my contract renewal period, a new phone would cost full retail value, and that none of the smart phones in the store were less than $400. He said I could add an additional line to my current account, which would cost $40 a month, and I could get a new phone at a discount.

Neither of these options would work for me. I asked if there was anything else they could do. Could I get another phone and pay for it over a period of time? No. He said if I had an old phone, I could activate it and use it, but that wasn't an option as I traded my old phone in when I got the Droid. He then warned me that if I switched carriers, Verizon would keep my old phone number. This turned out to be wrong.

I was forced to switch carriers and went over to T-Mobile because they will pay my early termination fees from Verizon. A new phone was included in this plan, which I will pay for over the life of the plan. Unfortunately, because my old phone didn't work, they couldn't transfer over my contacts. I knew I'd saved my contacts to the Verizon Cloud, so I figured I could get them from there.

But I was wrong. Verizon immediately deleted everything I had stored on their Cloud system when I switched over to T-mobile. I lost all my photos, videos, and contacts.

First, if I had been given more serviceable options, such as a payment plan for a new phone, or the chance to buy a used phone, or a loaner phone until my Droid could be fixed, I would have stayed with Verizon. Until this point, the service quality and network coverage Verizon provides left me a very satisfied customer.

Second, Verizon shouldn't immediately eliminate someone's personal data from the Cloud. This seems like rude and vindictive behavior. Even former customers should have access to data stored there and given a grace period -- even as little as a day or two -- to retrieve their data from the Cloud.

Because of these actions, I have lost family photos and videos that can never be retrieved. I was lucky enough to post many of the photos online, but almost all the videos are lost. This is a cruel disservice to someone who was a loyal customer for years. Verizon should realize that former customers could be returning customers again in the future. After all, I was once a T-Mobile customer, and now I'm back with them again. But I will never, ever, go back to Verizon. They stole precious memories away from me.

I came away from this experience with a hard-learned lesson. I will keep a paper copy of all my contacts name and phone numbers. The contacts I lost were accumulated over 10 years, and I was able to transfer the numbers every time I switched phones because my old phones always worked at the time I switched. Some of those numbers will never be recovered.

I will also immediately post my pictures online and may even, if possible, set it up so that this happens automatically.

So many friends and family members have been screwed over by wireless phone service companies. They offer a dizzying array of options and plans, and obfuscate everything with legalese. It's an industry that serves a basic need, and has thus become corrupted by the profit motive. It would be nice to have a phone service that is simple, affordable, allows you to keep your number, and offers all the service options and coverage that big, evil Verizon offers.

Also, the phones should be made more durable and fixable. The Droid DNA wouldn't even allow me to remove the battery. And when one component went wrong, the whole phone needed to be scrapped. It would be great to have a set up where the central processing core -- which holds all the essential data that you don't want lost or, even worse, stolen by a third party -- could be transferred from phone to phone with each upgrade.

But there's no profit motive for such an innovation, so it will never happen.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Fiction in a flash

I've got exactly 30 minutes left on the library computer and the goal is to write some fiction. No stopping. No editing. Just let it roll and see what happens. Now....

Jack Valentine was his name. And he got shit for that from the trailer park boys when he was a kid. And all the ladies thought he'd be something special. And old ladies compared him to a dead movie star from the 20s. But it was just a last name. And it was a holiday he dismissed as a vacuous economic commodity designed for the benefit of retail. As for family history, he didn't give much thought to that. Life hadn't slowed down enough for the reflective insights of geneaology.

He was in his late 20s. Hair getting thin, a slight paunch beginning to grow in his midsection, but otherwise fit, strong, and hale as any other late 20th century American male. And Jack was handsome enough, "swarthy," the word he liked to use, and still naive enough in his youth to take a turndown from a lady as a missed opportunity for them, not a crushing defeat nor an affront to his manhood.

An easygoing manner was Jack's best and worst asset. Past girlfriends praised at how well he got along with friends, brothers, and parents, and how willing he was to commit to whatever activities they planned. But time and circumstances inevitably revealed the flip side of that equation, and more than one past lover accused him of laziness, being non-committal, unmotivated, unoriginal. Or, in the words of the pink-haired art major, Deidre Winnemaker, who was quoting someone else, "There's no there there."

Which is not the worst fault to have. Many a man has been able to coast through life with a take-charge woman who wants an easygoing man, as long as he pays the bills and doesn't fool around. Soulfulness, ambition, and spirit have their downsides too. But unfortunately for Jack, his long hair and swarthiness didn't attract women looking for "safe." His easygoing manner was often misconstrued for seduction, and the safe-seeking women were never drawn in to Jack's web.

It was a late spring day, a day for love and falling in love, for fresh beginnings, during wedding and graduation season, birds aflutter with nesting and feeding their young, the newness of the green prescient in the minds of North Americans who endured a harsh and clinging winter, when Jack felt stirrings of passion, anger, and a call to action heretofore quite novel to his usually laconic manner. It started with a text message received from his on and off girlfriend, Mindy Russo, who he had spent the previous weekend with at her brother Mark's graduation party. She lived over an 1 1./2 away in the south Chicago suburbs, moving there recently after finishing graduate school.

Jack didn't know if he loved Mindy, but he could tell the symptoms of losing her, of the same game of boredom and uncomfortable silence he'd seen through most of his 20s. And he knew her graduation and the recent move, which separated them, not by an insurmountable distance, but would certainly take a bit more effort to maintain, threatened their relationship. They'd been dating almost 6 months, and again, Jack knew, this was what he called a threshold time.

He was planning to come out and see her this weekend. They were going to go out on a boat with her brother and some of their friends. One of those big boats that has a lot of room, a canopy, and lots of cooler space. Drinking and swimming would be on the bill. But then Mindy texted him.

"Change of plans. Don't come out this weekend."

"What?!" he replied.

"Not enough room on the boat. But Mark rlly wnats me ther."

"Why not do something after."

"This weekend is just stacked, ok. I hope you understand."

"I don't (frowny emoticon)."

Jack tried to call her, but she didn't answer the phone.

And that's when Jack's mind went through a flurry of emotions. Anger, rejection, resignation. But what could he do? Was he losing her? No doubt there'd be other guys on the boat. Single guys. Maybe she already had her eyes on one. Maybe it was too late...""


Friday, June 13, 2014

Back in the studio

The cursed truck I've been driving the past couple months broke down twice this week. The starter keeps going out. Shop keeps saying it is fixed. Then I take it out again and need roadside assistance to get going again. Luckily, the powers that be in company behemoth got wise and I am slated to be assigned a new truck by early next week.

I've used the down time to take my recording equipment out of mothballs and set up in our dining room. And after a few initial technical problems with set up, I got all the specifications to my liking and began recording, "When You Coming Home?" last night. I finished it this morning. It's a good re-introduction to recording because it's a 12-bar blues and its simple construction makes for easy construction and mixing.

I've always played this song solo, only once playing with an ensemble (and DeKalb's best lap steel guitar great D K Kolars) at The House Cafe. "When You Coming Home?" is one of the first songs I wrote. I don't know why I took this long to record it.

My studio set up is quite simple.

I use an M-Audio interface with my laptop, which has a few pre-mix dials to help get the right levels. But the real mixing occurs on my Cubase 1.01 software, which has a few bugs and is eight years old. No doubt there is better mixing software, some of it available for free online. But it took me a long time and much frustration to master Cubase, and I'm sticking with it until forced to use something else.

Despite its age and limitations, its effects and 24 tracks give me more recording options than the Beatles ever had, so I need never blame the equipment for any problems with my sound. In addition to the audio interface and mixing software, I have a suspended condenser vocal microphone and a smaller handheld microphone. The audio interface has two inputs, each accepting microphone and 6.3mm guitar jacks.

The keyboard in the above photo belongs to my friend Todd (of Tallheaded Woody fame) and he's since reclaimed it. I'd like to get another keyboard and use it to add piano and other parts. Although experience shows that keyboards add a certain artificial nature to the sound. That's something I'm trying to get away from. The less I modify my sound, the more authentic it will be.

I have a bunch of original songs, some old, some written this year, that I need to record. Expect a slew of new recordings over the summer. And although they may be just a drop in the Sargasso Sea of available songs out there, and the quality and talent may be questionable, I enjoy the creative process and and am not going to worry about the audience (or lack thereof).

May the intrepid music seeker enjoy "When You Coming Home?" I wrote the bass part as I recorded it, and also added some vocal percussion, shaker, and spoons to the mix. The challenge in this song is making sure all the disparate rhythmic elements work well together. It took many takes and much wrangling, but the song is tight and I'm quite proud of the results.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Musical extravaganza

In the last few weeks, I've had a couple videos posted on You Tube. One, I posted of myself jamming with friend Jim Nerstheimer at Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church in DeKalb, IL, where he is the organist. I came in with a few riffs and he improvised off it. And then I improvised. Then we improvised off of each other. Then I came up with another riff, and so forth.

My talent on guitar is marginal. I can't bust out killer solos or move with great dexterity. But I have a decent enough sense of rhythm and melody, and enough chord knowledge to get by. Great music often is only derived from hours of practice. My musical involvement is purely amateur. I do it for fun. Not profit. It's a great way to hang out with friends. For those patient enough to put up with the inherent shortcomings of these videos, there are little moments of audio gold.

The other video is a cover of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." I practiced a couple of the chord transitions beforehand, but otherwise it is a dry run. It was recorded this past Sunday morning in my living room. We also did Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky," but failed to record it. Todd Stanley is on drums. When I perform publicly at The House Cafe and other venues, I do so under the stage name Stoom.

But when Todd and I get together, we are Tallheaded Woody, in reference to Woody Woodpecker. Fans of the cartoon know that the early incarnation of the smarmy, beloved character was taller, skinnier, and more coarse and violent than the later one. Because of his attitude, we favor the earlier version and name our collaboration after him.

Here is that video:

Todd always records our jam sessions on audio cassettes, and has been doing so since the early 2000s. He is the keeper of the archive, but when we get together he will bring an older tape for listening. What surprises me is how often these very crude jams have been the seeds of creativity for many original songs.