Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tragedy at the opera

I was sitting up in the Balcony Four cheap seats waiting for the opera to begin. A college-age couple came and sat next to me. As I read my program notes, I couldn't avoid overhearing what sounded like Act 1, Scene 1 of a domestic tragedy.

The two spoke of wedding preparations and I gathered that they were newly engaged. However, I heard no excitement in their voices -- no trace of that playful dialect spoken by young lovers. She was icy; he was almost mute. She lectured him concerning her marital expectations. She did not want to be called "Mrs." or be referred to as "wife." These labels were "unnecessary for her validation" and were unwelcome. It was as if she were reading from a strident, 1960s feminist tract. She insisted that he should have the same objections to being called "Mr." or "husband." He made no reply.

If I could have taken the young man aside, I would have given the following advice:

Flee, young man. Flee and don't look back. The woman has not given you her heart. Instead, she views her life as a one-woman show and you are nothing more than a convenient stage prop. Your loveless marriage will founder within two years and you will be discarded.

I can picture her returning to the opera with some new man. He will sit beside her as meekly as you do now and listen to her yammer, "I had to end my marriage. Sad, of course, but necessary. The marriage wasn't allowing me to validate all the parameters of my personhood."

So, rouse yourself, young man, and escape this wretched trap before it closes on you. Find yourself a jolly girl that delights in your company.


I am happy that my older son found a jolly girl that delights in his company. I wish the same blessing -- all in good time -- for my younger son.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cosi fan tutte

Translation: Thus do all [women]. Cosi fan tutte was the final collaboration of Mozart and his most capable librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Short Synopsis:
Two soldiers brag about the faithfulness of their fiancées. A worldly older man Don Alfonso bets them that, if he has their complete cooperation, he can prove within a single day that their fiancées, like all women, are fickle. The plan is arranged. The soldiers pretend to be suddenly ordered to report for duty. There is a tearful farewell.

As the women are bemoaning their fate, their saucy maid tells them to find new lovers – no men are worth much; you might as well have some fun. Don Alfonso arrives and, fearing that the maid will see through the soldier's disguises, bribes the maid to play along. The soldiers visit the women disguised as mustachioed Albanians and attempt to woo the women, each targeting the other's fiancée, and are relieved to find that the women rebuff their affections. The soprano declares that she is as firm as a rock. The mezzo-soprano wavers a bit but also resists. The Albanians depart.

The Albanians come again. They threaten to take poison if the women do not favor them. The women refuse. The Albanians drink the poison and collapse on the floor. The maid, disguised as a doctor, arrives and revives the Albanians by means of a powerful magnet (a joking reference to Dr. Mesmer of mesmerism fame). The Albanians demand a kiss but are denied. The Albanians depart again, happy that their bet with Don Alonso looks like a sure thing.

The maid tries once more to talk the women into flirting with the Albanians ("You need men. Do what the army does: Recruit!") but the women say no. But after the maid leaves, the hot-blooded mezzo-soprano confesses to the soprano that she is tempted. The two decide that a harmless flirtation, if kept within careful bounds, would do no harm. The two women meet the Albanians in the garden and pair off as before, with each man taking the other's fiancée. The Albanian with the mezzo-soprano has some success. The Albanian with the soprano gets nowhere. Afterward, the Albanians get together to discuss their progress and the Albanian that is engaged to the mezzo-soprano is enraged that his friend has gotten the mezzo-soprano to respond.

The women also get together to compare notes. The mezzo-soprano confesses that she is falling for the Albanian who is wooing her. The soprano goes through anguish (expressed through a wrenchingly moving aria) about wanting to stay faithful to her betrothed. However, her Albanian (the mezzo-soprano's soldier) returns and ultimately wears her down. She succumbs.

A double wedding is arranged. The maid, disguised as a notary, has them all sign the marriage contracts. Then Don Alfonso secretly signals to some hired musicians to play military music and announces that the soldiers have returned from battle. The Albanians run off, pretending to fear the arriving soldiers, but actually leave to put on their uniforms and return as their true selves. To the dismay of the women, Don Alonso "accidentally" reveals the marriage contracts to the soldiers, who pretend to be enraged and stalk out. They immediately return dressed half in their uniforms and half in their Albanian disguises. The women realize that they have been tricked.

Having become familiar with Da Ponte's life story, I was curious how this reprobate priest, clever court poet, and veteran seducer would compose a libretto. As I watched the opera, I paid close attention to the translated words and was struck by Da Ponte's consistency of theme and imagery throughout the opera. The libretto continually moved the action forward, conveyed the singer's emotions, and reinforced the conflict between faithfulness and betrayal. I was impressed that there was no padding or loss of focus during the entire three-hour production. However, a consequence of Da Ponte's "unity of effect" when combined with Mozart's perfectly suited music is that the opera exerts a power and realism that strains the conventions of a silly farce about fiancée swapping. When the soprano suffers over her conviction to stay faithful, the audience feels increasingly uncomfortable about the whole business of the Albanian trickery.

The opera's program notes stated that audiences later in the nineteenth century found Da Ponte's libretto to be offensive and immoral. I can easily understand this reaction. The soldier/Albanians are fools; and Don Alfonso and the maid are manipulative and foul-minded, despite their veneer of charm and sophistication. The opera is an unrelenting attack on the standards of fidelity and honor between the sexes. The attack cannot be excused by claiming that these standards are naively held and therefore deserve to be challenged. Don Alfonso's corrupting influence cannot be justified as merely educating the unsophisticated into the ways of the world, as is implied by the opera's alternate title: The School for Lovers. One definition of immorality is to willfully misuse good things for bad purposes. Cosi fan tutte applies splendid music and clever lyrics to a decadent story of betrayal and disillusionment disguised as comic opera. A thing that is not worth doing is surely not worth doing brilliantly.

I was pleased that Opera Colorado managed to attach a moral ending to the opera. Da Ponte's libretto brought a disturbing realism into the story, so it was appropriate that the ending be psychologically realistic as well. The final scene has each of the fiancées struggling to decide which man to embrace, her original soldier or the other soldier, who was her Albanian lover. After painful hesitation, the women find that they can't deal with all the emotional damage and both abandon the stage.

El Gringo Triunfa!

The Gringo triumphs! I succeeded in buying an agua refresca at noon today. Moreover, this commercial transaction was conducted solely in Spanish.

After my first two failures to purchase an agua refresca, I painstakingly reviewed what had gone wrong and concluded that I had done too much talking. My broken Spanish had confused the lady at the counter. Therefore, the solution was to speak less, ask the lady what kind of aguas frescas they sold, and then choose one of the alternatives.

I marched into Rancho Liborio and presented myself at the counter. A lady -- a new lady, not the one who had served me on the two earlier visits -- came forward and said, "Hi". I recited my carefully polished sentences. First, I said that I desired an agua fresca. I wanted this fact established at the outset. I didn't want another cup of watermelon chunks or strawberries and cream. Then I asked what kind (tipo) she had. She directed me down the counter to four huge plastic jars, each the size of a pony keg. Each jar was filled with a different color of liquid. She pointed at them one by one and said, "Papaya, [a short word], Pina, [a long word]." I only understood the words for papaya and pineapple; the short word for the pink liquid and the long word for the purple liquid were unknown to me. I chose the papaya drink, as being the closest I could come to my original drink of choice, the mango smoothie. The lady asked me again, speaking slowly in Spanish, if I wanted papaya and pointed at the yellow-orange liquid. I confirmed this with a nod and said, "Si." (Given that my Spanish skills are comparable to those of a two-year-old, I am not offended at being spoken to like a toddler.)

The lady removed the lid from the jar and ladled about twelve ounces of agua fresca de papaya into a paper cup. She rang up a $1.40 charge. I paid. She said "Thanks" in unaccented English. I said "gracias" and walked out of the store with my head held high.

The papaya drink was pleasant, much like a Kern's papaya nectar. However, a Kern's papaya nectar costs about 65 cents per can at Wal-Mart. Counting all three trips to Rancho Liborio, I had spent nearly ten dollars, including gas, before I successfully purchased my agua fresca. But money is no matter when compared to such a personal triumph!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Unity of Effect

My younger son's involvement with creating popular music and my recent attendance of opera performances has gotten me thinking about how music should support and enhance the lyrics. For an opera, a consistent relationship between music and lyrics and the overall theme of the opera leads to "unity of effect", which is crucial to moving the audience to a desired emotional state. (I am arguing from a traditional perspective. If the goal is to bewilder the audience, then a persistent "disunity of effect" is probably the weapon of choice.) Even with popular songs, a careful crafting of music can lift a workmanlike lyric into the realm of art.

Take, for example, the Paul McCartney song Yesterday. Even from the beginning, the descending notes of the dactyl "Yesterday" sound like the sigh of a lament. These dactylic sighs close off each verse: "game to play", "hide away", etc. The rising notes during the chorus for "Why she had to go" and "I did something wrong" reinforce the lyric's pangs of regret. Even without the self-consciously "artsy" string quartet orchestration, this would still have been one of McCartney's most artistically satisfying achievements. (One of his least satisfying is the dreadful Ebony and Ivory, where the music and lyrics fight each other.) I'm looking forward to the time where my son can use his language ability and his composition skills to construct a song where the music and lyrics are so tightly coupled that every note and syllable seem inevitable.

Edgar Allan Poe thought a lot about "unity of effect." I'll let him have the last word:

"I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest — I say to myself, in the first place, "Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?" Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone — whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone — afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect."

Existential Bagel Crisis

A Jewish colleague at work declared that a certain local bagel shop had the best and most authentic bagels in the metro area. He said that this was not just his idea but the settled opinion of the entire Jewish community. The standard of authenticity was whether or not the dough was boiled before being baked in the oven. Boiling is the standard practice in New York (the "old country") and imparts a firm crust that contrasts nicely with the chewy interior.

I was sufficiently curious about the purported excellence of this bagel shop that I drove there yesterday afternoon to buy a pumpernickel bagel and judge for myself. I parked in front of The Bagel Store, an unassuming shop at the end of a strip mall, and went inside. Two relaxed young clerks were sweeping up, getting ready to close for the day. I looked over the bins and was pleased to discover a few remaining pumpernickel bagels. One of the clerks set his broom aside and came to the counter. We chatted for a bit. He told me about the bialys, a Polish roll similar to a bagel but with a depression instead of a hole, the depression typically being filled with shredded onion or garlic. Food history is a fascinating subject. By the way, a quick look for "pumpernickel" on Wikipedia gave me the following fanciful citation:

"The Philologist Herr Johann Christoph Adelung states about the Germanic origin of the word that, in the vernacular, Pumpen was a New High German synonym for being flatulent, a word similar in meaning to the English "fart", and "Nickel" was a form of the name Nicholas, an appellation commonly associated with a goblin or devil (e.g., "Old Nick", a familiar name for Satan), or more generally for a malevolent spirit or demon. (Cf. also the metal nickel, probably named for a demon that would "change" or contaminate valuable copper with this strange metal that was much harder to work.) Hence, pumpernickel is described as the "devil's fart", a definition accepted by the Stopes International Language Database, the publisher Random House, and by some English language dictionaries, including the Merriam-Webster Dictionary."

The clerk sold me the pumpernickel bagel; we wished each other a good day; and I went out into the fresh air to conduct my test. The bagel was shapely and quite smooth, a consequence of the boiling I suppose. I put tooth to bagel. The first impression was favorable: the crust was firm and buckled slightly under pressure. The interior was dense and chewy. No air bubbles disturbed the texture. It was a successful bagel. Yet something was missing: the pungency (or Germanic flatulence) of the rye.

I began to wonder: what if the boiling process robbed the rye of its bite? What if authenticity and full rye flavor were mutually exclusive? What if I hungered for something that could not logically exist? I could conceive of a perfect boiled pumpernickel bagel; but if its essence precluded its ontological foundation, this imaginary bagel would not be a "thing in itself" but rather an emblem of my own solipsism. My thesis and antithesis would be irreconcilable. And so, failing at Hegelian synthesis, I tumbled into a bagelian existential crisis. (It's fun to string together philosophy words.)

Fortunately, this troubled state of mind was short-lived. My philosophical food crisis dissipated with the last mouthful of the pumpernickel bagel. No, I thought, hope is better than despair. I prefer to believe that there is a perfect New York-style pumpernickel bagel somewhere in the world and someday I will find it!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Terrors in the Grasslands

Somehow, while snapping this photograph of ornamental grasses, I slipped into a time warp and captured the image of an ancient monster superimposed on that of a modern one.

Marks of Extinction

Consider the dinosaur. His attitude was surly, his manners brusque. He gave no thought to beauty or sentiment. In place of philosophy, he had appetite. Now he is gone. This is food for thought.

Write Your Own Caption

(Yes, references to King Kong's digestive system easily come to mind. But you can do better than that.)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Gringo is Thwarted Again

I drove to the Rancho Liborio supermarket, the scene of my earlier failure to purchase a mango smoothie. This time I was prepared. I had crafted a perfect Spanish sentence and rehearsed it two dozen times: "Deseo una agua fresca con mango, por favor." ((I desire a smoothie with mango, please.) What could be more clear and succinct? When Hemingway lived in Cuba, he would have been proud to have spoken such a fine and true request.

I entered the supermarket and walked straight to the counter under the big sign that said Aguas Frescas. (The sign had apparently escaped my attention on the previous visit.) I saw the same small, plump woman that had served me before. She and a tall black-haired woman were back at a long metal table, busy chopping melons into chunks. The small, plump woman came to the counter smiling. (Let's call her Maria for the sake of convenience.)

I said hello to Maria and then recited my Spanish line. She appeared to be puzzled, looked back at the tall woman, and said something about "mango." The tall woman shook her head and replied, "No mango."

This setback did not rattle me, for I had taken the precaution of learning the Spanish word for strawberry: "fresa." I smiled and offered "fresa" as my alternate choice in place of the unavailable mango. Maria responded with a question whose meaning eluded me entirely, except that I heard her repeat the word "fresa." It seemed best to nod and agree. Maria asked me something about "crema." I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that this meant "cream." Cream seemed like an appropriate ingredient in a strawberry smoothie. I nodded again.

Maria flew into action. She gathered great handfuls of strawberries from the bin, took them to the metal table, and hacked them with a cleaver. After pouring a big slug of heavy cream into a tall plastic cup, she filled the cup to the rim with the strawberry chunks. A quick spritz of whipped cream was added as a topper. She handed me the result: a good pound and a half of strawberries and cream. I paid the bill for 4 dollars and departed, totally flummoxed once again. Gracias and adios.

Ah, but Maria has not seen the last of this gringo. I will have my smoothie yet.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Counting my blessings

Now, as my younger son's graduation grows nigh and he is approaching, despite long odds, the condition of supporting himself as a musician, I can finally relax and feel grateful that both sons have traversed the minefield of darkest adolescence with no detonations. As Shakespeare wrote long ago (Winter's Tale, Act 2, Scene 3):

"I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting."

The Heart of Easter

I just returned from an Easter service, one of four morning services at the large suburban church I attend. I arrived late to a packed house and had to find a seat on an amplifier case at the very back of the sanctuary, right behind the sound booth.

The joyful aspect of Easter was well represented. The music was festive: a brass quintet accompanied the organ on hymns of triumph and hope. The sermon addressed the healing of the nations through Christ's resurrection. All of this was good. However, the underlying reason for Christ's death and resurrection was not forcefully expounded. To complete the Easter story, I went back home and read a sermon that the London preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave back in 1948, as compiled in the book The Heart of the Gospel (p.28-29):

According to the New Testament, the cross, the death of Christ, is not only vital, it is absolutely central. You will find this in the teaching of our Lord himself. Then look at the preaching of the Apostles as it is recorded in the Book of Acts and you will find that all along they went around and preached about his death -- how the Christ must suffer -- and about the meaning of that death upon the cross. Peter's first sermon on the day of Pentecost was really nothing but an exposition of that. Paul, too, gives us a very graphic picture in writing to the Galatians, saying that he placarded the death on the cross. He is like a man holding up a placard and on it is the cross. 'I determined,' he said to the Corinthians, 'not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and Him crucified'(1 Cor 2:2). Or again: 'For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ'(1 Cor 3:11). It is always this message of the cross.

And what did they say about it? This is still the heart of the matter. They did not merely announce the fact that he had been crucified on a cross, that he had died and was buried and rose again. No, they expounded what that meant; they unfolded the doctrine concerning it and their teaching is made abundantly plain and clear in the New Testament itself. What they said was this. They said that He had come deliberately into this world in order to die upon that cross. They taught that what was happening there was that God, in the language of the Prophet Isaiah, 'laid upon Him the iniquity of us all'(Is 53:6). They said that God was there dealing with the sins of men and women in the person and in the body of the Lord Jesus Christ. Again let me us the language of the Apostle Paul: 'For he hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him'(2 Cor 5:21).

That is their doctrine, which they preached and proclaimed everywhere. And the deduction they drew was that this is the only way whereby we can be forgiven, and that was why they put it in the central position. Their preaching was to this effect, that it was specifically the death of Christ that suffices us; that it was not His teaching, or His example. They said, 'If He has not died for us, we remain in our sins, we are unforgiven.' Their contention everywhere is that the death on the cross is God's way of forgiving man and making a way of salvation. We are shut up with that cross and with what it means, so that without believing that He died there for our sins and bore our punishment Himself, there is no forgiveness for us and we are not reconciled to God.

That is the message. And that is the message at which so many have stumbled throughout the ages and at which so many still stumble today.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dynamic Tension

As an unwelcome side effect of losing weight last year, my muscle mass declined in proportion to the fat. I ended up looking emaciated rather than trim and fit. Exercise was clearly required. A disciplined regimen of daily walks -- an hour each weekday and two hours every Saturday and Sunday -- firmed up my legs, but my upper body remained weak. My arm muscles were soft and stringy. To strengthen them, I began using a pair of dumbbells for bench presses and rowing exercises. Also, to supplement these push-out and pull-in dumbbell exercises, I added arm exercises in which one arm provides resistance to the other arm. The effect is similar to isometrics but allows the arm being exercised to travel through its full range of motion. For example, if I want to perform a curl exercise with my right arm, I will clasp hands and then use my left arm to resist my right arm as it bends up toward my chin. For some angles of motion it is helpful to grasp a sturdy towel with both hands and perform a one-man tug of war. I try to do five push and five pull repetitions for a half dozen angles of motion before every meal. I'm beginning to notice some slight improvement in the tone of my arms, shoulders, and chest.

My little tug-of-war exercises are similar to the "Dynamic Tension" workouts popularized by Charles Atlas (born Angelo Siciliano in Italy in 1893), who was the Schwarzenegger (the muscleman, I mean, not the politician) of the 1920s. The Dynamic Tension program was performed without weights and consisted of various calisthenics and isometric exercises. Allegedly, the program turned Charles Atlas from a 97-pound weakling to the competition winner for "The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man." Atlas's advertisements for Dynamic Tension were almost invariably present in the back pages of comic books I read during the late 1950s and early 1960s (along with the advertisements for X-ray glasses that could see through clothes).

Lester Dent evidently was familiar with the Dynamic Tension program when he started writing the Doc Savage book series back in the 1930s. He attributed Doc Savage's extraordinary muscular development to special exercises that pit one muscle group against another.

If I continue my exercises and visit a local tanning salon, someday I too can look like "The Man of Bronze." (Actually, I would feel content being a pasty-skinned middle-aged guy that doesn't look quite so scrawny.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Disconcerted at the concert

I had the pleasure of hearing the Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi (Joe Green, to his pals) last Saturday afternoon. However, my pleasure was almost my undoing.

Verdi wrote the work to honor the memory of the famed Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni. (I have placed a hold request for Manzoni's most renowned novel, The Betrothed, at the local library.) Ignoring the formal requirements of ecclesiastical music, Verdi set the familiar Latin text to an operatic score. Dramatic musical gestures abound, and the work is often given the back-handed compliment of being called "Verdi's greatest opera."

According to the program notes, Verdi's wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, offered a defense of the Requiem's style:

"I say that a man like Verdi must write like Verdi -- that is , according to his own way of feeling and interpreting the text.... The religious spirit and the way in which it finds expression must bear the imprint of its time and the individuality of its author."

This is a fine statement. (Where does one find a wife like this?)

I found the Requiem's music powerful and moving. But if the program hadn't included the lyrics, I could have easily believed that the soloists were characters in some grand opera where a young noblewoman (the soprano) has been torn from her true love (the tenor) by the wiles of the evil Duke (the bass). But then, through the help of her trusty maid (the mezzo-soprano), the Duke's plots are foiled and true love triumphs.

I could picture a scene of this imaginary opera corresponding to each section of the Requiem. The Agnus Dei section, sung by the soprano and mezzo-soprano, seemed to be a song of lost love, providing dramatic contrast to the happy reconciliation awaiting the lovers in the final act. It was at the point, when the last notes for the Latin words for "O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world: grant them eternal rest" had died away to dramatic silence, that I lifted my hands to applaud this excellent opera scene. I came to my senses at the last instant and halted in mid-clap.

You don't clap during a requiem. It would be like whistling at a funeral.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

How about a smoothie?

After my Friday oil change, I visited Rancho Liborio, a delightful supermarket run by and for Hispanics. Objective: mango smoothie.

I entered and looked around. The store was swarming with Spanish-speaking families with young children. The scene resembled a Mardi gras parade that was winding through the aisles until it backed up at the cashier stations.

The juice bar was directly in front of me, but I needed to soak up the atmosphere first. Turning right, I went into the produce section and marveled at the heaping displays of fruits: bananas, limes, nectarines, oranges, and a kind of huge lumpy yellow fruit (a hyper-mango?). The vegetable racks boasted a dozen different varieties of peppers including, no doubt, peppers that would instantly char a gringo palate. I made my way through a flock of laughing youngsters en route to the bakery. After a quick perusal of the spacious pastry cabinet and then the adjacent stretch of fresh meat displays, I returned to the juice bar ready to do business.

A short, plump matron came to the counter to take my order. I asked for a fruit drink. She smiled and replied something about water in Spanish. Evidently, she had no English whatsoever. Unfortunately, my small command of Spanish instantly failed me. I couldn't remember the Spanish word for drink (bebida) or soda (refresco). I thought about asking for a smoothie, but feared that the sound of the word "smoothie" might strike her as indecent. A lot of racy words have that double-o sound, such as "smooch" or "hoochy-coo" or "whoopie". I didn't want to be misunderstood and cause an international incident. So, lacking any better idea, I repeated my initial question but rearranged the word order: "Do you have drinks made of fruit?"

She brightened and said, "Ah, fruta." She pointed to the other side of the juice bar and bade me follow. There I found the fruit bins for pineapple, watermelon, mango, and strawberries. I couldn't think of the Spanish word for mango. (Yes, it's "mango".) The watermelon bin was nearest at hand. I pointed at it. She nodded and began filling a tall plastic cup with watermelon chunks. We returned to the front of the juice bar, where the blender was located. However, she simply snapped a lid on the cup of watermelon and then rang up the bill for $1.75. I paid it, said gracias, and slunk away with my watermelon chunks.

A subsequent search on the internet clarified everything. The juice lady had originally asked if I wanted an "agua fresca". According to Wikipedia: Spanish for fresh (cold) water and signifying a combination of either fruits, cereals, or seeds, and sugar and water, blended together to make a refreshing beverage.

I vow to someday return to Rancho Liborio armed with this knowledge and successfully order the "agua fresca de mango" that I crave.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Hooray for Friday

You know that life has gotten stale when the high point of the week is visiting the Volvo repair shop for an oil change.

I arrived at 1:00 p.m. Friday and parked my 1987 Volvo 240 in the last parking space in front of the shop. The other cars were an assortment of similar brick-like Volvos -- including a smashed early-80s Volvo 240 that apparently had gotten intimate with a bridge abutment and had been towed in as a parts car -- and the newer ovoid models produced after the Volvo car company was swallowed up by Ford.

Jason, the shop manager, was his usual cheerful self. He and I have a sure-fire conversation starter: my younger son's 1986 Volvo 240 station wagon, formerly owned by Jason. The wagon is an eyesore of a vehicle, once silver but now dish-water gray with its coat of sealant curling up like peeling skin after a bad sunburn. However, the wagon makes up for its appearance with inner beauty. Its sturdy Swedish engine is still humming along after more than a quarter-million miles.

I had made an appointment to have the oil changed while I waited, but both racks were full with cars waiting on the arrival of parts. Jason said not to worry; they would handle my car the old-fashioned way. He called over Marcus, his youngest mechanic, and told him to wheel up the portable hydraulic jack and do my oil change right in the parking lot. Just try and get this kind of personal service at a dealership shop.

While Marcus was busy beneath my car, I asked Jason which newer Volvo he would recommend. He pointed up at the shiny Ford-era Volvo on the right-hand rack. "That model's popular. It's got a soft ride," he said. "So soft that it doesn't feel like a Volvo at all. It's a nice car, but the bushings and tie rods are weak. They go bad and the entire front end needs to be replaced at about 90,000 miles. That costs about two grand." No thanks, I thought to myself.

A trustworthy repair shop is a great blessing.