Listening to The Inner Idiot
You know, it would be nice if the human brain shut down during sleep. I mean really shut down, with only one brain cell glowing just enough to keep the automatic systems like heart and lungs going. That can’t be, of course, since we must be able to hear and react quickly when the hungry saber-tooth tiger enters our cave. We need to be able to scream before we’re torn to pieces.
So, what we’ve got is this gray lump too exhausted to stay awake and too restless to kick into a true, restorative idle. With no tiger within audible range, it eventually begins to rummage through the dusty bins of memory to pull a toothpick’s worth of something here, and a speck of something there, and then entertains itself by piecing those little random bits of electrical energy into a partially coherent story line. This is not an easy task, as anyone who works on “continuity” in the movie industry can tell you. They work desperately to ensure that the appearances of people and places seems unchanging from scene to scene, even when those pieces are shot months apart.
In sleep, our brains can’t be bothered with such trivialities. Basic elements change radically from moment to moment, time shifts, and even the storyline itself flip-flops around like a fish out of water. I think this is due to two factors. First, the brain is improvising, having to work with random impulses, and weaving anything together to create a sequence that makes sense is an impossible task anyway. Secondly, the human brain knows that, in a sleep state, there are no critics around. It can do whatever it likes, and the worst that can happen is that its owner wakes up disgruntled or confused. However badly the story was weaved together, at least the task has been fulfilled and there is no danger of it being fired for incompetence. There is also no penalty for incessant reruns, apparently.
A dream is a storyline which is either benign or turns out happily. A nightmare is when the storyline winds up wandering into unhappy territory. I’m not a big believer in dreams revealing great truths of the subconscious. We like to assign flying through the air or trains in tunnels as meaning something, but I think that’s trying to explain away problems that the sleeping brain had in fashioning a coherent story. A recurring dream can reflect a recurring emotional state, but that’s about it.
I started thinking about the nature of dreams recently, after waking up ready to sign a petition of protest. You see, it involved a car that I once owned and was glad to get rid of when it turned out to be a lemon. It seems that my subconscious not only disagrees that this was the right thing to do, but never accepted how I got rid of it, by trading it in on a new car having supremely mundane specifications.
The car was a 1974 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray convertible, personally ordered from the factory in St. Louis from the options sheet. It was painted in a color called Silver Mist, was the last of the big-block 454s, and was also nearly the last of the all-fiberglass bodies which would end in the 1975 model year. Likewise, the convertible body style would disappear after 1975 and not return for a decade in a different body series. Mine was one of the last of 5,474 convertibles made that year. My Stingray was the last year for true dual exhausts (because of catalytic converters in 1975). Because I was commuting to work in it, I ordered the automatic transmission. Because I intended to autocross with it, I ordered the new, tighter gymkhana suspension plus a hard top for winter use. It cost me $7,200 hard-earned bucks at a time when a postage stamp cost 10 cents.
On the good side, despite being heavily choked by the emissions equipment used at the time, it was still a rocket sled. Rated horsepower was so low that the customary plate on the console omitted it and replaced it with the higher torque number, but the sheer torque of 454 cubic inches and good weight distribution planted the rear tires to the pavement from a standing start. Stomp the gas at a light, and it simply disappeared without any fanfare other than embedding you firmly into the seat back. The handling was superb. Going into a turn “too fast” simply caused both the rear and front tires to slip equally. There was no plowing ahead or spinning out. Its aim never changed on its own. It was really too large and heavy to be suited for low-speed, tight-turn autocross competition, but despite no small amount of indecisiveness about which end would lose grip first in a turn, it actually did commendably well against much “better” cars like Porsches. The brakes were gigantic four-piston calipers on big rotors, and could easily handle anything. Smooth, capable and fast, to me, this car was one of the “last of the good ones” of the flamboyant Mako Shark II show car-based Stingray model that ran from 1968-1982. As a high-performance platform, the big-block Corvette of those years was regarded by the press as no improvement over the small-block version due to the emissions gear and the boat anchor up front. Its LS4 motor was marginally quicker than any other variant, but they preferred the other versions overall. As for me, I found its road manners to be impeccable and impressive. And what a velvet hammer wallop it had – more like a jet fighter on its afterburner than the usual brutish violence of most high-performance American cars of the time. Its true forte seemed to be passing maneuvers at starting speeds of 60-80 MPH. The sensation was much like riding an acceleration sled.
And those brakes! Oo-la-la! Once the break-in period was over, I had just whipped past a big Cadillac Eldorado on a two-lane, doing the acceleration-sled routine. He was apparently one of those drivers who took being passed as an invitation to drag race, and despite having a 500 cubic-inch motor, the Eldo’s tonnage kept him from preventing a smooth pass. Once I was tucked nicely back in, I held speed and noticed that he was now back up to my rear bumper and probably determined to pass me back as retribution for the perceived insult. As far as he was concerned, nobody could pass an Eldorado and get away with it! He quickly found that this invincibility did not apply to his brakes, however. Just ahead was a yellow traffic light that was timed such that there was no way I could grease through it, and onto the binders I eased, increasing pressure and watching my rear view mirror. Brakes firmly on now, I watched as the big Eldo began squirming in a panic from side to side, obviously at its absolute limits. I found this entertaining. The Corvette was nowhere near its braking limits, probably due to the weight difference: about 3,600 pounds versus the Eldo’s 5,200. I came uneventfully to a smooth stop at the light, then pulled away normally, once it turned green. The Eldorado driver was apparently trying to put his shattered nerves back together, as he sheepishly dropped back, never to be seen again. The saying was that “you can’t fool Mother Nature”, and that held to simple physics as well. It takes more than cubic inches to play Johnny Racer, and these days, turbocharging and vast improvements in power output have leveled the field to some degree.
On the bad side, my special-order Stingray was made just prior to a labor dispute and plant closing in June. This was a portend of evil, but several other quality problems the car had were engineered in, too. The paint job really was a Silver Mist, being cloudy and varying all over the car, centering on a direct shot with the spray paint gun on the right rear fender that ran in long rivulets down toward the ground. Even after a partial repaint very grudgingly authorized by Chevy’s District Rep, my trade-in dealer a couple years later thought I was trying to hide accident damage.
In some kind of karmic way, I was. Even in the first moments of delivery to the dealership, hot off the auto carrier and into the shop for delivery prep, I followed it on foot into the cave and found that the delivery guy had punched a dent into the shop wall with that long, sleek snout. Oops. The vinyl bumper cover was still bulging up a bit where it had flexed to absorb the impact, and it would need some cosmetic work in the dealer’s body shop. Sitting in the car for the first time, I found it hard to count the car carrier guy as a fool. All that lay ahead of the windshield was lost to view except for the hood bulge and the tops of the fenders as they each swelled up to cover the tires. The car’s snout was up there… somewhere… and exactly where would be a continuing mystery for as long as I would own the car. I mean, it was way ahead of the fender tops.
Time revealed the rest. The windshield leaked, the passenger side window couldn’t close all the way and could not be made to. The top could not seal against the rear deck and could not be made to. A steel fuel line underhood split under pressure, dumping a gallon or so everywhere. The headlight switch failed and started smoking in rural Missouri. The alarm failed. Driving it for longer distances required thick-soled shoes because the exhaust pipe heat came right through the floorboards to roast your right heel to the point of pain. Likewise, there was no need to turn on the heater in winter, and cracking the windows open was needed even then. In its first winter on snow and ice, I was astonished to find that it wanted to swap ends in the worst way, and that it took extra pressure on the brake pedal to dissuade the rear tires from slowly rotating when stopped in a long line of traffic. Letting them slowly churn thanks to the engine torque and automatic transmission would tend to kick the back end this way or that, depending on the slant of the pavement. Inching ahead in snow meant giving an extra shove to the brakes and shifting into neutral each time the car ahead stopped. Then to move forward, shove the pedal again, harder, and shift into drive just long enough to crawl ahead a few feet. Forty-five minutes of this in my daily commute was not that enjoyable.
In hindsight, it would be thirty years before I would find a performance car that bad in winter, the Mazda RX-8. While the 1974 Corvette had simply been a very ill-mannered bull in a china shop, the RX-8 was positively lethal, the issue being its very soft and grippy Bridgestone Potenza tires. The factory had fitted those to try to overcome excessive vehicle weight for its size, and they worked – in temperatures above freezing. Despite having horsepower not worth raving about, the RX-8 at twenty degrees Fahrenheit was easily capable of power-on wheelspin in its first three gears (and fourth at full throttle) on perfectly dry, clean pavement. That, despite a perfect 50/50 weight distribution. On snow or ice-tainted surfaces, it was literally helpless. It was just as happy to slowly ease you down a slightly-tilted apron into busy cross-traffic, wheels locked, as it was to fail to climb it. Apparently, nobody who helped develop it in Japan got the okay to climb Mount Nitaka with it, nor park it there. The Mazda had also had a recall to fit it with a bigger starter capable of turning the engine over in cold temperatures. They had apparently reasoned that anyone crazy enough to brave the tire grip thing could be best dissuaded from doing so with a starter too weak to allow beginning the hazardous ordeal in the first place. It was a back-handed safety feature.
Once the twelve-month warranty had expired on the Corvette, I found that the car couldn’t exceed 112 MPH because of a fuel pump problem and, at that speed, the nose lifted and I was using both lanes to keep it on the pavement. Actually, the fuel pump problem wasn’t the fuel pump itself – the camshaft was soft and had worn down enough to take the fuel pump and valve lift out of action. This was a year and a half after delivery. I needed a car to get me to work, not a part-time prima donna. At the same time, in that same year and a half, it had been not ailing with some problem or other just long enough to autocross only once. A broken man, I traded it in on a family sedan and never looked back (and never bought another Chevrolet, either). Happily for future generations of purchasers, the St. Louis plant that assembled my Corvette was closed in 1981, and production was moved to a new facility in Bowling Green, Kentucky. That big family sedan, though it cornered very well, was a Buick LeSabre fully documented as the slowest passenger car General Motors made in the last half of the twentieth century, and also served as a fine example of why Illinois came to enact its “lemon law” not long after. The Seventies were not a good decade for GM, and opened the door wide for foreign brands.
Apparently, my Inner Idiot never got over the shock of this automotive dream-car trauma. It seemingly wondered, “Whatever happened to that car, that epitome of the American Sports Car Legend that would clearly be a valuable collector’s car today?” I recently had yet another installment of this dream in which I wandered out to the expansive garage of a house I’d never lived in, only to find that my beloved Stingray that had long been parked in it…had simply disappeared somewhere. I hadn’t been out there to check on it for years. The keys were gone too, though I couldn’t remember for sure where they might have been kept. Had I mislaid the car? Given it away? What happened to it? Had my son borrowed it and forgotten to bring it back? I didn’t think so, but couldn’t be sure. It was surely a classic, now worth more than it had been new! What happened to it? What had I done with it? Why was it no longer here? I was overtaken by feelings of loss and confusion, as though I had packed the car away for so long that now I couldn’t remember where I might have put it. It was valuable in both landmark status and money, and now it was somewhere I wasn’t aware of! I tried in vain to remember.
Then I woke up. My feelings of loss and confusion, and lament over being absent-minded for life quickly morphed into a supreme annoyance. Wait a minute here! I traded that Stingray in, and good riddance! It was upchuck from the bowels of mid-1970s GM! There was no mystery, no deep lament, no “Gee, I wish I hadn’t gotten rid of that car”. I had gleefully handed the keys over and pitied the poor bastard that would snap it up. Gone. Had my fun with it, such as I could, and wouldn’t want it today, no thanks. It seems that my subconscious was lagging a few decades behind my conscious, rational self, and it was time for a little helpful self-talk. This self-talk, paraphrased, resembled, “What the hell are you thinking? It wasn’t mislaid, I handed over the keys and got something else! No more reruns on this issue, because it’s not an issue. The sleek shark was a hopeless lemon, and I got rid of it. PITA. Bye-bye. Case closed. Find a different story line to piece together, brain, because you’re all done on this one, capiche?”
Apparently, indignant self-talk works, because I’ve slept better since.