An Old Rig and a Passenger

Wormy had a girlfriend, was in a relationship, he wanted to get rid of, to get out of. He had a plan. He wanted to do some time travelling on the scooter. I tried to tell him that was a bad idea. All times are the same, same rotten humans unhappy with their lot. The only road to true happiness was to live like a gypsy in a caravan putting down only shallow roots if any, keeping with your family. Nonsense, he said. The girlfriend was called Tilde, a nickname ascribed to her from the way her eyebrows grew: ~ ~ . The plan was I would give Tilde a ride up the coast with me to San Francisco, where she had a sister Wormy was in touch with who would take her in and help her find a job waitressing. Tilde had been tending bar at the Orange Orchid Tiki Bar and sleeping with Wormy and had grown accustomed and comfortable with the arrangement, but Wormy was beginning to feel cramped and closed out and wanted to kick out before wiping out, as he put it, and did something really stupid like get married. He would tell Tilde it was all over between them, but that I would give her a ride up the coast to her sister’s place. Tilda’s sister was some sort of professor at one of the Frisco colleges. Her beau was a veteran right fielder for the Kyoto Kinks who owned a fancy Japanese restaurant in Frisco. Long ways to go two on a Vespa, I said. Impossible. You’re not taking the scooter, Wormy said. You’ll take the Chevy. The Chevy was his restored 1956 two-ten with a rebuilt 265 cubic inch engine, 3 speed synchromesh manual transmission. Cream white with turquoise roof and lower side panels. Not as classic as the Bel-Air, but a nice ride for a coast cruise. Go ahead, Wormy said, who had backed the car out of the garage and was beckoning me to take the wheel and we’d go for a test drive around town. It was a different kind of time travel, the ’56 Chevy, and maybe I’d had enough of the scooter for a time, and I agreed to Wormy’s plan.

“An Old Rig and a Passenger” is episode 51 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

Loaner

My Dad was never on very friendly terms with cars.
“It feels like it ain’t gettin’ no gas,” he explained
to Jack, the mechanic on duty in greasy overalls.

The loaner, a loner, sat in the backlot behind
the filling station, unfulfilled, a rusty old dog,
for days, sometimes weeks, until an overnight
repair required its use. We had to jump start it
again and again.

We were driving up Mariposa when I opened
the glove box, a curious cat, and pulled out
the little box about the size of a matchbox.
“You know what that is?” Dad said.
“No, what?” I had already opened it
and found it was empty.
“Nevermind,” Dad said.

But what was it doing in the glove box
of the loaner? And we went to Jack’s
in the first place because of Church.
It was a little mystery, and still is.

The thing about our car under repair,
it was a 1956 Ford Station Wagon,
a baby blue and white twotone,
it needed a narrative to hold together.

Random, disconnected parts littered
the shop floor, tools hanging from nails
of the bare studs, a transistor radio
playing what would come to be called
oldies, but not for another decade or two.

What you want in a car is a
coherent whole, a story
that makes sense, with reason
and use and value,
even if it is not true.
It’s nuance to suggest it, but
the truth often rings of nonsense.

Photo: Joe Linker with ’49 Ford, a gift from his father,
3 speed on the column, no A/C, no heat, no radio:
The Peace Truck, around 1969, on Loma Vista.
Just visible, tail and fin of Jacobs Surfboard.
After Joe bought his ’64 VW bus, he gifted
the truck to brother-in-law Raymond.

Birdbrain, Bird-witted, and more on Thought

Reflecting yesterday afternoon on my morning post, “On the Coast Starlight,” in which I suggested thought, if we are to try to compare it to anything, seems more bird-like than the train of thought first found in Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 “Leviathan,” I thought, to force thought onto a track where ideas are coupled one after another in forward motion toward some predetermined destination results from printing press technology, as McLuhan has shown. Thinking like a train does produce advantages, but the linear notion of thought may put us in a cage. Then it came to me that a reader might have commented that I seem birdbrained.

Since I’ve had comments and likes off for recent posts, no such reader was able to suggest it, so I’ve come forward to suggest it myself. (Readers intent on comment, like, or dislike, btw, will find an email address at the bottom of the Toad’s About page.)

But why we have come to disvalue flightiness to the extent we have, I’m not sure. Birdbrain, according to Google Ngram, is a word product of the second half of the 20th Century, while bird-witted has a more storied past, with interesting spikes of usage in both the 1720s and the 1820s.

I readily agree that my brain seems to be more bird-like than train-like. But upon discussion with Susan, she informs me that only the hummingbird is able to fly backward. Trains, of course, can travel forward or backward, but not at the same time. Yes, but trains can’t leave the track (except to switch to another track), and two trains running in opposite directions on the same track – well, in a quantum train world, perhaps a train may indeed run forward and backward at the same time. In any case, the intelligence of birds is not in question. The question is whether to think like a bird offers the human any advantage over thinking like a train. But we are only speaking to the metaphors, of course, because of course trains don’t actually think at all, and people don’t and can’t and will never think like birds any more than they’ll be able to fly like a bird.

It’s probable that in the era of trains, people did think more like trains than bird-like, while before artificial locomotion was mass produced, people thought more like other animals think. Now, people no doubt think more like automobiles. And we might update Hobbes to suggest an automobile of imagination.

The poet Marianne Moore, in her poem “Bird-witted,” leaves no doubt that to think like a bird is to think like a human:

parent darting down, nerved by what chills 
  the blood, and by hope rewarded -  
of toil - since nothing fills 
  squeaking unfed 
mouths, wages deadly combat, 
and half kills 
    with bayonet beak and 
    cruel wings, the 
intellectual cautious- 
ly creeping cat.
The last stanza of “Bird-witted,” from The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, Penguin, 1982, p. 105-106.
Photo: Susan and Chicken, Culver City, circa 1952.

Joyride

Problems, Inventions, and Implications

Inventions are usually a response to a problem. A problem is something that limits or impairs access to needs, wants, or values. An invention solves the problem, granting or improving access. An invention might be a machine, an idea, or a new value. Inventions alter our environment and often present side effects, good or bad, that may or may not have anything to do with the original problem, and may or may not have been anticipated. Inventions can create new problems, and changes in our environment can change us, often in unexpected ways, change our response to our environment, change us externally or internally, physically, mentally, or emotionally, change our behavior and the way we think of ourselves. Inventions can change culture and change the direction of societal development. Sometimes, as in the case of synthetic biology, an invention takes on “A Life of Its Own” (Michael Specter, New Yorker, 28 September 2009). This “life of its own” we might call implications. Invention shares with experiment, discovery, and creation what it means to be human.

As machines, inventions have a shelf life, for they are subject to entropy, wear and tear, as well as obsolescence created by changes in the environment or by other inventions. It was Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, talking about the creation of the State (which begins as an idea), who said, “…the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention” (Jowett, V-128, Book II, p. 60). What happens to the old machines when we no longer perceive the necessity? And if inventions are a response to a problem, what problem did the automobile solve?

Imagine life today without the automobile – not that you simply give up your car, but that the automobile was never invented.

According to Google Patents, the oldest patent using the word Automobile was filed in 1809, but not issued until 1902. The patent, by J. Ledwinka, “subject of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary,” but, “residing in Chicago,” was a design allowing for the independent functioning of the four wheels of the carriage. The patent improves the efficiency of the automobile, making it easier to operate. The terms Motor-car and Auto-car will fetch other, equally old patents from Google Patents.

The word “automobile” suggests a self-moving vehicle. A US patent for L. Bollee, of France, providing improvements for a “self-propelling vehicle,” was filed in 1896 and issued in 1898. This patent involves improvements to “…five principal parts: first, the motor; second, the frame; third, the transmission gear; fourth, the brake; and, fifth, the mechanism for engaging and disengaging the motor, for changing the speed of the vehicle, and for actuating the brake.” There’s no mention of a radio or radar detector.

Many of the patents surrounding automobiles suggest that most patents are inventions of improvement. The automobile itself, as an invention, isn’t a new machine as much as an improvement on older machines. The idea of a wheeled vehicle is very old, and may be said to leverage the underlying general principle of the circle, its latent energy (as Fuller’s piano top life preserver illustrates the underlying general principle of flotation, and his magic log illustrates the underlying general principle of the fulcrum, or leverage). Humanity’s first observations of round things rolling, seemingly of their own volition, perhaps needing a kick to get things going, seems to have set off a chain of inventions in what we now call a “snowball effect.” Society seems to be a tower of inventions, not all necessarily designed to improve our humanity.

Imagine life today without the automobile – not that you simply give up your car, but that the automobile was never invented. This is increasingly difficult to do because we may have lost sight of the original problem the automobile was designed to solve, and the automobile has itself created new problems for which it is the invention that appears to be the solution. This is why Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Related:

All Stung Over By Links of Googled Grace

Earth-Glass Half Empty or Fuller?: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

Progress Report: Our Disappearing World