Russ Ringsak

Of Machines and Music

August 16, 2006

Hank is less than five months old and has already been slathered with insect DNA from 29 states and the District of Columbia. He has seen both oceans and crossed the waters of the Mississippi, Missouri, Yellowstone, Clark Fork, Coeur d'Alene, Skykomish, Powder, Tongue, Little Missouri, Musselshell, Cache la Poudre, James, Vermillion, Platte, Minnesota, St Croix, Chippewa, Wisconsin, Chicago, Kankakee, Sandusky, Cuyahoga, Shanango, Susquehanna, Allegheny, Monongehela, Hudson, Delaware, Roanoke, Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, Arkansas and Pecos; the Rio Grande, both Reds and both Colorados plus the Erie Canal. Plus Whoopup Creek in Montana.

He's taken on the Rockies, Cascades, Sierra Nevadas, Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge, and climbed four serious passes both ways without breaking a sweat - the Snoqualmie, Fourth of July, Lookout, and the Continental Divide at Butte. Little crevasses in his chassis now carry minute particles from deserts, woods, truckstops and cities from the east coast to Los Angeles, and he seems none the worse for any of it. If anything he is a bit more fit and is using zero oil between changes; not down even a pint and that's good, considering the engine holds twelve gallons of it.

Unbecoming as it may be to brag about the truck one drives, one has a hard time to not do it when operating a powerhouse as full of spirit as this Kenworth: all high, wide, handsome, trustworthy and hardworking. And it's also a burglar deterrent. Truckers have a reputation, earned mostly back in the days before power steering, of favoring action over negotiation, and I have no doubt its imposing presence up there on the back hill helps keep the property clear of the nocturnal slitherings of thieves and vandals. Not that we are overrun with them, but we have had the mailbox bashed a few times. This before Hank took up his post.

A friend named Allen Christenson has an art gallery, the House of Balls, in the warehouse district of Minneapolis. He is a remarkable sculptor and can carve bowling balls into surreal characters. He is a proponent of the concept of animism, which posits that certain manmade objects can exhibit the traits we call character, or even soul. His own truck was an example: an old pickup embellished with bowling pins, colored lights and other evocative symbolism, a famous vehicle which was sadly totaled one night by an altered-state auto driver as it sat parked in his yard. "It died in its sleep," he said.

I can relate to the idea of personality in made constructions, from locomotives and bulldozers down to watches and locks. Certain machines and buildings feel most agreeable, inspiring even, and others seem designed as a perverse force against their owners. I hold a longtime affection for the designs of the Lima and Baldwin locomotive works and the Caterpillar tractor company; the exciting machines of William S. Harley and his partners, the Davidson brothers; the works of Christopher Wren, Louis Sullivan, Samuel Colt, Enzo Ferrari, Orville Gibson, Leo Fender. These and an army of other innovators, far too many to mention, gave us tools that fired the imaginations of the entire world. They turned us all loose. The change in the last 200 years has been the Big Bang of civilization.

A lot of that change happened because certain metals, like brass and steel, simply beg to be shaped; to be cut, formed, ground, polished and handled. People liked to mess with them and find new ways to make them do work, like turning boiling water into rotary motion, or keeping time. It's a tactile thing, on top of being an intellectual exercise. The contemporary use of plastics and composites in mass production– unworkable rigid moldings to be used and thrown away– is bringing on a big rebound of old cars, old furniture, retro architecture, turn-of-the-century Colts and Winchesters, self-winding watches, Harleys, farm tractors, fifties-era electric guitars and Art Deco anything. They not only look cool but they have personalities, at least do the ones given to us through brilliance and logic.

And our company truck is a good example. This model, the big W-900, was introduced for logging service 42 years ago and the radiator style goes back at least thirty years before that. They got it right the first time, and they kept making it better. A lot of us don't like the new mushy designs with the wide soft interiors. We like the old flat metal surfaces and the narrow cab, and those round glass gauges with the chrome rings around them. That straightforward hardnosed feel. It means business.

* * *

Poker, and especially the newly-famous Texas Hold'em variety, teaches three important fundamental behaviors. The first is that you don't do dumb things. You can rely on a strategy of doing dumb things and hoping for the best and it'll sometimes work out and you'll feel like a genius for a while, but don't kid yourself. Doing dumb things is a policy that will cost you your shorts in the long run.

The wizards you see at the final tables in the poker tournaments on television often say dumb things and they sometimes surely look like they're doing dumb things, like betting their entire pile on a lousy pair of fours; but what you don't see is that they've just spent a grueling and monotonous couple of weeks doing thousands of smart things. They've been folding a mind-numbing series of bad cards into the muck, and they've done a great heap of mental math and of course they've bullied a lot of lousy hands into winners against uncertain and even frightened opponents. And they've gotten away with it.

So the second behavior the game teaches is that if you absolutely must do dumb things you must do them with great enthusiasm, at the right time and against the right opposition.

Which leads us to the third fundamental truth, which is that you must avoid situations where someone else can intimidate you by enthusiastically doing dumb things in your presence. This all applies to everyday life. Poker just illustrates it more concisely.

"Sure, Russ," you're thinking, "easy for you to say, especially in such a glib fashion. How about giving those of us who are bored by poker an example of real life non-gambling dumb things we might encounter?"

Well, I'm glad you asked. Let's say you go to a party. There are young people there and there are older people who wish they were young, and they want to fit in. And the music is very loud and very now, with that moronic computerized heavy beat and with less groove than an industrial stamping machine, and with idiotically stupid lyrics that you wouldn't want to understand even if you could; and the singing is utterly awful, sometimes bogus operatic and sometimes nothing more than rap grunting, but it's persistently and mindlessly godawful, over and over. It is, to any critical ear, a disaster more disgusting than disco, and it's even louder than disco. They have powerful speakers now with a quarter of the weight and four times the decibels of the old disco monsters. It is utter crap and there is no other way to describe it. But the young people think they like it. It's on the radio. But it's garbage; you're in a garbage pit. And it's dumb.

So the first rule is that you don't do the dumb music, and the second rule is that if you do do it, do it with enthusiasm. Since they are violating the first rule but following the second, it is now up to you to practice the third, which means you get the hell out of there. Doesn't matter if you're in the older group and you want to feel young. Forget that. It's the sound of ignorance. Avoid it. Save your hearing. Go home and listen to Merle Haggard or Ray Price, or Jackie Wilson or Ray Charles or Loretta Lynn. Listen to Chet, Little Feat, Dire Straits, Otis Redding or the Allman Brothers, or whatever it is that sounds real and sounds musical to you. Roy Orbison, Van Morrison, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin. Today's terrible episode in pop music has got to pass, somehow. And you don't have to listen to it, except for the occasional passing of the whump-whump car.

There is a gigantic legacy of fabulous American music. It's heard all over the world. The current swill is not part of that legacy, nor will it ever be. It will be forgotten. Trust me on this.

© R.Ringsak 2006

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