Stories Told

The safety to express our anxieties

I’ve written before about how my dad always needed to be in control in our relationship and how never really were able to relate to each other just as men.

There was one time when he did it, and it was through seeking my advice about whether to buy what turned out to be his last car.

Dad was a Ford man. He owned eight Fords in his lifetime, turning to other makes — Chevy, AMC, Renault — only during the ’70s and early ’80s when Ford’s build quality had taken a serious nosedive. When quality became Job One at Ford again in the mid ’80s, Dad went right back to his first automotive love.

Dad had driven his 2006 Ford Focus to about 70,000 miles. Being a product of his time, he thought this was a lot of miles and that the car was nearing the end of its useful life. But I knew that his Focus easily had 100,000 miles left in it, especially because he had taken very good care of it. I was ready for a new car myself, so we negotiated a price for his car. After he bought his next car, I’d write the check and drive the old Focus home.

Looking Over my Car

Dad soon found the car he thought he wanted, a one-year-old 2012 Ford Focus. I waited patiently at the dealer while he and Mom test drove it, in case it was “the one” and we’d complete the deal on his old Focus.

When he came back from the drive I asked how it went. He said it had good room, power, and handling. He wished it were a hatchback rather than a sedan. He also thought the car had high mileage for its age.

Then he looked straight at me and asked it: “Do you think I should buy this?”

The wavering tone of his voice, and the unsure look in his eye, and the very question itself all startled me. I noticed that he was fidgeting a little and sitting crooked in the chair. He had always seemed so sure about everything. He had never asked my opinion about a personal matter before.

He needed to be pushed off the fence, and it was clear that my word was going to do it. “Do you like the car?” I asked. “I mean, can you see you and Mom being comfortable and happy in it as you drive around town and on your trips downstate?” He didn’t hesitate in saying yes, but he still worried about the car’s mileage. “Oh Dad,” I assured him, “you put 5,000 miles a year on your cars, tops. That’s far less than most people. In a couple years the car will be at the right number of miles for its age. You’ll get lots of years out of it. And I’ve checked online: this car is priced fairly. If you negotiate a little, you should get it at a very good price. There’s no reason to hesitate.”

Dad loved a bargain. He stopped fidgeting and sat up straight. He bought the car.

Then I drove home in his old car. I drove it daily for five and a half years, commuting to work, taking road trips, and even driving my sons on a Route 66 vacation in it. It has been the most fun-to-drive little car I’ve ever owned. Despite a couple expensive repairs, I’m happy I bought it. It’s been a good car.

But now it has rolled to 150,000 miles. Little things had been going wrong and I was getting to know my mechanic a little too well. After a failure last winter that required a tow, I knew it was time to put this car out to pasture. The Focus is still in our fleet on light duty. One of my sons currently uses it to drive to his summer job.

My wife and I have two newer cars now, a 2013 VW Passat for me and a 2017 Kia Soul for her. I certainly felt my own anxiety over these two major purchases! Will we like it long term? What if it’s a lemon? Wow is that a lot of money to spend. It’s normal to feel this anxiety, and it can be helpful to talk it out with someone.

I wish my dad could always have felt safe in expressing his own anxieties. But at least this once he was willing to share his with me and let me offer a perspective.

Thanks to Paul Niedermeyer for this article over at Curbside Classic, a Father’s Day memory of the one time his dad took his carbuying advice, which reminded me of this story.

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Faith, Stories Told

What’s the use?

It’s Down the Road’s fifth blogiversary!
All month I’m reposting favorite stories from the blog’s early days.

In the spring of 1989 I graduated college, got a job, and moved into an apartment. I kind of hoped Dad would forget I was still driving his old car, but after a few weeks he called and said, “Enough freeloading; I’m coming in two weeks to get my car back.”

I tried to buy a used car, but since I had no credit history nobody in town would write me a loan. Disappointed but undaunted, I turned to General Motors, which offered to lend me up to thirty thousand dollars to buy a new car. “You’ve achieved so much,” the form letter said, “with your recent graduation. We think that makes you a good risk, so we invite you to reward yourself with a fine new General Motors car.” I admired GM’s optimism about my ability to pay. Fortunately, I was more realistic than they were about my finances. I went to a Chevy dealer and spent far less than GM’s largesse allowed on a basic car, a maroon Beretta.

My first brand-new car

I’d never driven a new car. It cruised so smoothly! It passed without sounding like it would rattle apart! That stereo really rocked! Still, I was not enjoying the car payment. I knew I would want to keep this car long after it was paid off, which meant keeping my car in top shape so it would stay worth having. I followed the maintenance schedule religiously and had every funny noise checked out. I also washed and waxed my car about every week and kept the interior clean.

And then the troubles started.

After about a month, a dying tree hanging over the road decided to deposit a huge branch on my car’s roof as I drove under it. Just after I got the car back from the body shop, a flatbed Ford truck driving alongside me decided to change lanes without checking his mirrors.

Dented

The windshield wipers quit working, and it took the mechanic three tries to get the repair to last. Then the stereo died. I saved up and put a new one in myself. Then the power steering pump started making strange noises. It took the mechanic four tries to fix it right.

Later I hit a patch of ice and slid partway off the road. The car behind me did the same thing, right into my rear quarter. The body shop did a pretty good job of untwisting considerable damage to the car’s understructure, but forevermore there was spot in the front passenger footwell where a little light pressure could make it pop like the lid of a baby-food jar.

Then one day when I tried to turn the car off, something snapped and my key spun freely in the ignition. Turns out that a long aluminum rod connected to the starter solenoid broke in half. After the repair, the steering wheel was not aligned properly. In fixing that, they broke the steering column.

The headliner started coming down over the back seat passengers’ heads. I reattached it with neat rows of staples. The clear coat began chipping off both doors. And finally, one day as I leaned back to square my butt in the seat, a bracket that held the seat to the floor sheared in half, and I found myself suddenly staring at the neat rows of staples in the ceiling. Thankfully, I hadn’t started the car yet. I fixed that myself with a bracket from a junked Beretta.

Despite my best efforts, the car came to be in sad shape. As it deteriorated, so did my enthusiasm for its care. I thought I had wasted my effort, and I felt a lot of disappointment. What was the use when outside events and fate had conspired against my little car so much?

Cars fall apart, of course. It’s what they do. I was naive to think my Beretta would stay like new for so many years. Fortunately, in time I came to look at my Beretta differently.

I remember taking aimless drives in the country in my car at a time when life was tough.

I remember driving my car hard, as young men sometimes do. It was fun to drive – it held the road well and was fairly quick.

I remember long road trips I took in my car, including a sweep through Detroit, Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Hoboken by myself to see old friends, and a trip to the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia with my dad to see where he grew up and meet relatives I never knew I had.

I remember listening to mix tapes and tapes of old radio shows in my car as I drove. I often sang along, not much caring whether anybody else saw me.

I remember driving in my car to the old mill dam in Terre Haute with a girlfriend, where we’d sit and talk and maybe have a smooch.

I remember the woman I married getting me out of a speeding ticket  in my car.

I remember a frigid January day when I brought my first baby home in my car.

In other words, I remember enjoying my car as it took me places and helped me spend time with people I loved.

It’s easy to think that I feel better about the car now because time heals all wounds. But rather I think I was so focused on making the car last that I was often closed to enjoying the car. It was like I compulsively hoarded pennies in a jar for another day, checking my jar every day to see how many pennies I had, hoping that I could count on those pennies in the clutch. I wasn’t living in the present, enjoying what God has given me in that moment, trusting God to provide.

I’ve owned several cars since and they’ve all had troubles. Every visit to the shop and every ding in the paint still bring me down. But thanks to my Beretta memories, I bounce right back and relax. I count the good memories associated with my car, and look forward to those to come.

Originally posted 7/6/2007. Read the original here.

I’ve written about several other cars in my life: the Pinto, the Chevy van we named after a heavy-metal band, the boring family cars, and even my current ride.

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Personal, Stories Told

Checking my barometer

A large barometer used to hang on the wall in my grandparents’ palatial retirement estate. Grandpa tried to explain to me how it told him when storms were coming, important when you lived in the country in a day before 24-hour TV weather channels, but it went over my young head. But after I grew up my dog helped me understand.

About ten years ago, my wife brought home a dog she found shivering in some bushes behind the Shell station around the corner. We already had two dogs and three cats, but because her heart knows no bottom for an animal in need, Gracie joined the menagerie.

One of my travel companions

Gracie showed signs of having been abused. We figured her abuser had been a man because she warmed right up to my wife but cringed if I as much as shifted in my easy chair and ran, tail tucked, when I stood up. As my wife and Sugar, our Rottweiler, helped her find her place in our home, her security increased, and she came to be considerably less skittish around me.

Gracie

I got our dogs after the divorce, and Gracie had trouble making the transition. I had to leave her home alone all day while I worked, and she took to destroying things in my house while I was gone. When I was at my wits’ end, the vet said it was separation anxiety and prescribed a doggie antidepressant, which helped. But I could see she needed a lot of structure so she could know all was well. I started taking the dogs on daily walks, made more time to play with them in the yard, and implemented solid and consistent discipline. It was, and remains, a lot of work, but Gracie responded well and became fully my dog in the process.

Gracie’s security had just returned when Sugar died. I worried that Gracie would falter without her constant companion, but soon she stopped looking around the house for Sugar and instead just seemed thrilled to have me all to herself. But six weeks later Gracie just fell apart. She started destroying things in the house again when I was gone; when I was home, she followed me everywhere, whining and crying.

At first I thought that perhaps it sunk in that Sugar wasn’t coming home, but then I connected some dots. I’m a busy dude, often busier than I like to be. Not only was I mourning Sugar after she died, but I was super busy for several weeks afterward. I had let up on Gracie’s walks, stopped playing with her in the yard, and had relaxed the discipline. A couple weeks later, my own usual stress symptoms emerged: I was tired all the time, my shoulders and neck were stiff and sore, and I was becoming irritable. I could see that I hadn’t been getting to bed on time, I hadn’t been eating well, and I hadn’t been setting aside any quiet time.

I realized that I have a barometer, and her name is Gracie. She’s a very sensitive instrument who knows that I’m off my game well before I do. If I’m taking good care of her, then I’m taking good care of me, and we’re both happy. But every time she whines and cries when I come home and becomes jumpy, I always find that both of us need more attention. As soon as I give it to us, she rebounds, and I keep stress from piling up on me.

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Personal, Stories Told

What’s the use?

In 1989 I bought my first brand-new car. I had just graduated college, gotten a job, and moved into an apartment when Dad said, “Enough freeloading; I’m coming in two weeks to get my car back.” I looked for a used car, hoping to save money, but nobody in town would lend me money because I had no credit history.

Disappointed but undaunted, I turned to General Motors, which offered to lend me up to thirty thousand dollars to buy a new car. “You’ve achieved so much,” the form letter said, “with your recent graduation. We think that makes you a good risk, so we invite you to reward yourself with a fine new General Motors car.” I went to a Chevy dealer and, resisting considerable upselling, picked out an entry-level car, a maroon Beretta with four cylinders and five speeds. I splurged on a cassette stereo; everything else was as basic as I could get. The interest rate was obscene, but I could manage the payment, so I signed the loan papers on a Thursday. Besides, Dad was coming on Saturday whether I had a car or not. With just 16 miles on the odometer, I drove it home.

My first brand-new car

I’d never driven a new car. It cruised so smoothly! It passed without sounding like it would rattle apart! That stereo really rocked! Still, I was not enjoying the car payment, and realized that I would want to keep this car long after it was paid off. This meant keeping my car in top shape so it would be worth having then. So I followed the maintenance schedule religiously and had even small problems checked out. I also washed and waxed my car about every week and kept the interior clean, because I’d want it to look good in the future, too.

And then the troubles started.

One week after I bought the car, the drive thru at McDonald’s didn’t put the lid tight enough on the orange juice. I never got it fully out of the seat, the door fabric, and the carpet.

After about a month, a dying tree hanging over the road decided to deposit one of its large branches on my car’s roof as I drove under it. Just after I got the car back from the body shop, an F-350 with an iron flatbed decided to change lanes without checking his mirrors. Here’s the result.

Dented

That’s $2,000 worth of damage. The truck’s driver somehow convinced the cop that I hit him, even though the glass from my window was all in my lane. So on top of paying my deductible to repair this damage, my insurance company charged me a special fee of several hundred dollars for having caused the accident. I didn’t know they could do that! They also nearly doubled my rate, which was already terribly high because I was male, unmarried, and under 25. I changed insurance companies, but I still had to eat peanut butter and hot dogs for three months while I recovered from that financial mess. And then the body shop screwed up the repair three times.

The windshield wipers quit working after a few months, and it took the dealer three tries to get the repair to last. After about eighteen months, the stereo died. I saved up and put a new one in myself. Then the power steering pump started making strange noises. It took the repair shop four tries to put in a pump that worked.

I’d had the car about four years when I was hit in the right rear corner after I hit a patch of ice and slid partway off the road. What looked like minor body damage turned out to be several thousand dollars’ worth of frame straightening. The body shop did a pretty good job, but still the front-seat passenger could pretty easily put their foot on a spot on the floor and with very little pressure make it pop like the lid of a baby-food jar.

Then one day when I tried to turn the car off, something snapped and my key spun freely in the ignition. Turns out that a long aluminum rod that connected to the starter solenoid broke in half. The fine gentlemen who repaired it couldn’t get the steering wheel on straight. When I insisted they get that right, they sent their burliest mechanic to try to intimidate me into leaving. When that didn’t work, they got it on straight all right – by breaking the steering column. I could move the steering wheel about an inch up and down or left and right. I was disgusted, but not wanting to deal with those mechanics anymore I drove it away like that. I ended up never getting it fixed. The car drove fine.

After about six years, the headliner started coming down over the back seat passengers’ heads. I reattached it with neat rows of staples. I noticed that the clear coat was chipping off both doors. And finally, one day as I leaned back to square my butt in the seat, a bracket that held the seat to the floor sheared in half, and I found myself suddenly staring at the neat rows of staples in the ceiling. Thankfully, I hadn’t started the car yet. I fixed that myself with a bracket from a junked Beretta.

The last couple years I owned the car, I washed it maybe a couple times a year, and I’d let it go long between oil changes. My enthusiasm for the car was gone. I felt like I had wasted my effort to keep the car nice, and I felt a lot of disappointment. What was the use when outside events and fate, I guess, had conspired against my little car so much? I didn’t expect it to last forever, but I had wanted it to stay nice longer. And then, as if in defiance during those neglectful years, it had rolled through 150,000 miles when I sold it.

Cars fall apart, of course. It’s what they do. I was naive to think my Beretta would stay like new for so many years. But to my surprise, now that ten years have passed since I sold that car, I look at it differently.

I remember the day I found a long, straight stretch of deserted state highway and put my foot to the floor as I rowed through the gears. With a big smile on my face, I learned that my car could go just beyond 100 miles per hour.

I remember how well, for an inexpensive economy car, it held the road when I pushed it through curves and over hills. I could get it momentarily airborne on a particular rise around a curve on State Road 42 west of Brazil. I hope it’s not too indelicate to say that my car’s handling made my butt happy.

I remember long road trips I took in my car – a sweep through Detroit, Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Hoboken by myself to see old friends, and a trip to the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia with my dad to see where he grew up and meet relatives I never knew I had.

I remember listening to mix tapes and tapes of old radio shows in my car as I drove around town. I often sang along, not much caring whether anybody else saw me.

I remember driving in my car to the old mill dam in Terre Haute with my girlfriend, where we’d sit and talk, solving world problems, and maybe have a smooch.

I remember getting out of a speeding ticket in Thorntown in my car.

I remember a frigid January day when I brought my first baby home in my car.

In other words, I remember enjoying my car as it took me places and helped me spend time with people I loved.

It’s easy to think that I feel better about the car now because time heals all wounds. But rather I think I was so focused on making the car last that I was often closed to enjoying the car while it lasted.

I’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes lately. The last part of chapter 2 talks about the frustration of working hard to build up something only to later have to hand it over to somebody else, who may screw it all up. Even though this isn’t exactly my car story, verses 22-25 do apply:

What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless. A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

I spent a lot of time chasing after the wind, as Ecclesiastes says, on my car. There was nothing wrong with taking care of my car – it is prudent to take care of our things so they last as long as they can. But my taking care of it interfered with my ability to experience the joys of owning and using it. I didn’t even enjoy washing and waxing the car; I did it mostly from my drive to keep it nice. It was like I was compulsively hoarding pennies in a jar for another day, checking my jar every day to see how many pennies I had, hoping that I could count on those pennies in the clutch. I wasn’t living in the present, enjoying what God has given me in that moment, trusting God to provide.

Today I have a 2003 Toyota Matrix, which I got in my divorce. It had been my ex-wife’s car and she had picked it out, but she wanted our family car instead when we split. I wish it weren’t red – the only color I like less on a car is white – and I wish it had a little more power. But little car has grown on me anyway. I love its fuel economy, its CD stereo, and that the hatch can swallow a surprising amount of stuff. I don’t have as much time as I used to for washing and waxing my cars, but I took this photo right after I managed to put a good shine on her:

My current ride, an ‘03 Matrix

This car is not without its troubles. The clutch makes a funny hooting noise when it’s humid or damp outside, it sometimes stalls when just starting to roll, it has lost five wheel covers so far (at $80 each), and I’m about to have to take the car back for the fourth time to get a brake job done right.

My prayer today is that God will help me enjoy this car as His gift to me as I drive my boys to the park in it, take it on road trips, drive to work while singing along to CDs, maybe make a return trip to Hoboken this year, and yes, wash it and wax it and keep to the maintenance schedule so it will last as long as it can.

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