Thursday, April 12, 2012

Not in my skill set: Automotive 101

As a fairly accomplished journalist, I take pride in the variety of skills that have gotten me to where I am.
I consider myself a solid reporter, an ace at building relationships and a compelling storyteller.
Somehow, I must have missed the class on changing a tire in college.
I consider myself fairly intelligent, well-read and well-traveled, but when it comes to car maintenance, I'm definitely not at the head of the class.
For the past nine years, I've thanked God that my wife's father owns his own automotive repair shop, saving me the time and energy (not to mention plenty of money) when it comes to taking care of our cars.
For almost the same amount of time, I've told myself countless times that I should learn some automotive basics - changing the oil, changing a flat tire, etc. Needless to say, I never did it and hoped that would never come back to bite me.
Today, it bit me. Hard. Right in the backside.
It's probably payback for the number of times I have continued speeding past a stranded motorist on the side of the freeway, always in a hurry to get to wherever I'm going. I don't know how many times, I've seen someone with a flat (or worse) a shredded tire and said to myself, 'It really sucks to be them right now."
Today, that bit me too. Again, the bit was uncomfortably hard and yes, right in the same location.
We've known for some time that the front two tires on my wife's car needed to be changed. We put it off and put it off, knowing eventually, we would get around to it.
With my wife driving my car this week, I drove in Ann Arbor for a Michigan football press conference. As usual, the trip was uneventful. Afterwards, I drove up State Street, thinking I heard something strange.
I've taught myself that noises are commonplace along busy thoroughfares and never figured for one moment that the sound I heard was coming from my car - and more specifically, my right left tire.
I almost stopped, but then figured, it would be fine. I entered I-94, sped up and almost immediately knew something wasn't right. My ride suddenly became bumpy, prompting me too cross over the right lane and onto the shoulder.
Traffic sped by. I got out of the car, looked at the tire which was shredded and nearly cut in two. I smelled the god-awful smell of burned rubber that typically only NASCAR fanatics tend to love. I think I could have swung an axe at my tire for 30 minutes and it wouldn't have looked as bad as the remnants of what already a tire that should have been retired long ago.
I considered my options. I could call my father-in-law as I had many times before. But seeing he is 150 miles away in Grand Rapids, I opted for another route. I texted a fellow sportswriter and asked how knowledgable he was in changing a tire.
"None, sorry," he responded.
At that moment, I discovered something. Sportswriters tend to be pretty loyal and willing to help one another out when we can. Yeah, sometimes we think we know it all, but this one thing is true.
Not very many of us know how to change a flat.
I called a friend at work, who said he was about to go into a meeting and he'd be at least an hour. I called another friend. No answer.
I thought for half a second about trying to figure out how to change the tire myself myself. About then, five cars zoomed past, making me reconsider my options.
Kneeling by the side of a major freeway with speeding cars mere inches away didn't seem like the best way to go. Not if I wanted to see tomorrow.
I googled more options on my phone. We're not AAA members. Our insurance company doesn't offer roadside assistance. Finally, I learned that our insurance company would reimburse us for a towing company to come out and change the tire for me.
I called Brewer Towing, which dispatched a truck within 10 minutes. Ten minutes later, my new best friend Josh, had the tire switched out and threw the shredded tire into the trunk. After the insurance reimbursement, my fee for the service will be $5.
It's not very often watching someone do their job makes me feel inadequate. But today as Josh jacked my car up, removed the lug nuts and then the tire, I have to admit I didn't feel very smart.
I know cars are his business, but as I stood behind the car watching him work as traffic flew by, I was thankful I didn't try to do it myself.
One, it would have taken a heck of a lot longer than 10 minutes. Two, I'm not sure I would have lived long enough to write about the experience.
I still don't know if I'll ever learn to change a flat tire. But after today, I'm sure I will give it a second thought before I find myself stranded on the side of the freeway again.
After all, it's never too late to add something new to your skill set.
Even if it's just fixing a flat.

Monday, February 13, 2012

It's for a good cause, really it is

The email came from a friend.
The emails from this friend are always harmless, often including an invitation to come over for dinner or to meet her and her husband for a beer at our favorite pub.
Not this time.
To paraphrase the e-mail. We've decided to kill ourselves. Want to come?
OK, it wasn't that bad. Or that serious. I'm half-kidding.
The email was an invitation to join our friends in Chicago. We love Chicago. We visit on a regular basis.
The email was an invitation to join our friends walking around Chicago. We love Chicago. We like to walk.
Harmless, right?
Hold that thought.
The email was an invitation to walk and possibly run around Chicago. For 26.2 miles. With 45,000 of our closest friends in October. In the Chicago Marathon. For charity.
OK, what???
The invitation was not only a challenge, but a friendly one at that. Wrote our friend: "We can't think of anyone we'd rather walk around Chicago with than you guys."
Kill 'em with kindness, right?
A day later, I was in an informational meeting about the Chicago Marathon. Out of the 170 people in the meeting, 80 percent had never done a marathon. Good to fit in, right?
Out of the 170 people in the meeting, approximately 169 were planning on running it.
Goodbye, majority.
Four days later, in the midst of my first Super Bowl work assignment, I sat at a friend's dining room table and registered for the Chicago Marathon. I kept telling myself, "You are NOT crazy." This is for a good cause. Sending clean drinking water to Africa. You can do this. You love Chicago. You've walked around most of the city.
Not all at once mind you, but you know your way around.
Interestingly enough, there was no "Can you walk 26.2 miles in one sitting" requirement. I guess the folks at the Chicago Marathon figure if you're signing up, you can walk or run 26.2 miles.
I filled out the application, paid the $150 entry fee and hit the submit button.
Maybe I should have known I was in trouble when a pop-up screen appeared.
"What have you done? Are you out of your #@%$& mind?"
Over the weekend, we made an appointment with a personal trainer at our gym. Personal trainers have this existence of killing you with kindness.
Emphasis on killing you.
The fitness assessment was the first step. Height, weight, body mass index testing, overall fitness test and a full-on look into our lifestyle. Is your life stressful? What do you eat for breakfast? Lunch? Dinner?
Are you freaking crazy?
My trainer suggests yoga to increase my flexibility. It will be good for you. It will prepare you for what you'll need to do to successfully reach the finish line. Then, the yoga instructor flips through a book with a dude contorting his body in poses that I swear to God were straight out of the Barnum and Bailey Circus manual.
This week, the journey begins. Over the next eight months, I will convince my body it can walk/run/crawl the Chicago marathon. I have plenty of support from my wife who is also taking part in the marathon.
I will take up residence at our gym. I will become one with the treadmill. I won't be scared of the elliptical machine anymore. I will embrace pushing myself and I will find a way to cross the finish line in Chicago in October.
It started with an email from a friend.
Hopefully by October, we'll still be on speaking terms.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

We the Jury....

I don't have many guilty pleasures.
Starbucks is more of an addiction and my small fascination of being on "Man V. Food" at some point in my life borders on a sickness.
But I've always had this infatuation with television court dramas. I was hooked on "The Practice", passed on "Boston Legal" and grew up with "L.A. Law".
But because it was just TV, the guilty pleasure remained just that.
As a journalist, I am intrigued by real life dealings as it relates to those who choose to break the law and the consequences that accompany the actions of the accused. The concept of "innocent until proven guilty" had always been one I held to be true more out of Constitutional correctness than out of real life experience.
That changed last week when, for the first time, my courtroom drama guilty pleasure shifted to a front row seat.
For three days last week, I became known as Juror No. 8. Two months after receiving a summons to appear at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in downtown Detroit, I arrived at 7:45 a.m. Monday morning and waited.
Crammed into a standing room only waiting area with countless other Wayne County residents, I waited for my name to be called, secretly hoping my stay would be short and I could return to my normally-scheduled life.
Eight groups were called. My name was never mentioned. Oh, there were close calls - there were Jeffs and Jeffreys - but never a Jeffrey Paul Arnold. That is, until 9:45 a.m. when my name was grouped with 17 others.
"Damn," I muddled to the same people I had just mentioned to that we had to be getting close to being released.
With a red "Juror" sticker pressed to my shirt, I made my way to the elevator, traveled to the fourth floor and waited.
We were ushered into the courtroom where Judge Annette Berry welcomed us and told us we were potential jurors in a homicide case involving the 19-year-old kid sitting only feet away wearing a blue argyle sweater.
Having covered courts and cops during my first newspaper stop, the courtroom was not foreign to me. But I had always been there as an objective witness - not a willing participant charged with hearing the facts of the case and making up my mind whether the defendant was not guilty or guilty.
One by one, potential jurors made their way to the jury box and answered questions from the judge, determining whether they were suitable to serve.
Fifteen minutes passed. Some potential jurors were excused because of their difficulty understanding English. Others were let go because of religious objections while others had been victims of crimes themselves and weren't sure whether they could get past that when it came to determining innocence or guilt to the young man facing felony murder charges.
Two more jurors were released.
The court clerk reached into the bowl and pulled out another slip of paper.
Jeffrey Paul Arnold.
"Damn," I said to myself.
I took my seat in the jury box.
"Good morning, Mr. Arnold," the judge said. "How are you?"
Fine," I responded. "And yourself?"
"Fine," the judge said. "Thanks for asking."
The questions started. Where do you live? Are you married? How long? What does your wife do? What do you do?
Here was my chance.
"I'm a journalist," I answered.
The judge looked back with one of those, "Oh, that's nice," glances.
Minutes later, the attorneys made no objections to the 14 jurors now seated. Judge Berry released the rest and looked at us.
Our duties, she told us, were to be taken seriously. They were one of the highest honors bestowed on an American citizen - to hear the facts of the case and determine beyond a shadow of a doubt if the fellow American seating half a room away was innocent or guilty of those charges levied against him by the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office.
As many cases as I had watched on television, no longer could I walk away without leaving part of myself in that room. Over the next two days, I took careful notes as one witness after another testified on the behalf of the prosecution.
I took note of evidence, timelines, cell phone records. I listened intently, not wanting to miss anything that could, in essence, change the way I thought about the young man fighting for his life after allegedly taking the life of another.
We were instructed early on not to allow the emotions of the case to factor into our thinking. I did all I could to avoid looking at the defendant. But I had to. I had to see how he responded to charges levied against him.
I glanced at him as his brother, an accessory in the crime, testified against him after accepting a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony. I wondered if I could ever do that to my brother. I watched him as his best friend also testified against him - also accepting a lesser charge to testify to what he knew.
In my free moments - over lunch at nearby Greektown restaurants - I wondered what it would be like to deem a young man guilty of felony murder. I also thought what would happen if the prosecutor didn't prove her case and whether 12 of us could deliberate, return to the courtroom and issue a Not Guilty verdict.
By the end of closing arguments, my mind was made up. I have a feeling so were 13 other minds. We heard final instructions and prepared to go into deliberations.
The court clerk would pull two names out of the bowl and send those two jurors home without deliberating with the fellow jurors that we had spent the better part of 2 1/2 days with.
He reached into the bowl and pulled the first slip out.
"Juror No. 8 - Jeffrey Paul Arnold."
"Thank you for your service, Mr. Arnold," Judge Berry said.
Part of me was relieved. But another part of me was disappointed, wanting to finish the job we were charged to see to its completion.
As I walked out of the courtroom with Juror No. 13, part of me wanted to take one final glance at the defendant.
Did he care I was gone? Did he even look at me? Did he know that most of the people left in the jury box had likely already made up their minds?
I walked out and continued down St. Antoine Street, turned left by a large parking garage and shook the hand of Juror No. 13.
Part of me wanted to know how he would have voted. Part of me already knew.
Part of me wants to call Judge Berry's courtroom and find out what my fellow jurors decided. Part of me wants to know how long it took them to reach a decision.
I wonder if court dramas can be a guilty pleasure for me anymore. I will still be fascinated by The First 48, which follows the first 48 hours of a homicide investigation. I will still watch as jurors determine the fate of the defendant seated half a room away from them.
Part of me will consider what they are thinking before they issue their verdict.
Part of me thinks I already know.