Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Seven-Forty Story

Any time I talk about my car, I talk about the car it's not. My original Volvo was a 1986 240 that I owned from about 1997-2001. That car had 152,000 miles when I bought it, and I drove it an additional 100,000 miles before I had to get rid of it. I loved that car. Every time you turned the key, it would roar to life but instantly stall if you didn’t put it into gear right away, as if doubting your intentions. I found that charming. It was heavy, slow, unresponsive, and had a slew of mysterious, intermittent problems. Once it took thirty tries to get it to start. The windshield wipers died during a rain storm only to come back to life when it was over. The warning lights on the dash constantly indicated grave problems that the car somehow kept at bay. "Service Engine" the dash would implore along with an image of an oil can (indicating a leak?), an old fashioned icon of a light bulb (one light, somewhere, was always out), a green upward pointing arrow that meant that overdrive was engaged or disengaged, and other indecipherable flickerings. The dreaded "Check Engine" (the difference between "service" and "check" can be equated to with "curable" and "terminal") would sometimes light up, only to fade when you drove over a bump or turned a car. Apparently, the car too grappled with its own mortality, facing it head on one moment only to suppress it again when the everyday road conditions proved too distracting.

"These are no ordinary malfunctions." I'd think to myself with admiration. Problems take on a certain grandeur when their causes are unknown. Who knows? The lights, the stalls and the sputters might a manifestation of anything--sacred, mystical, demonic, forth-dimensional, mechanical (I grudgingly concede). People with untraceable hang-ups delight me in the same way. Their dysfunction, though probably just a childhood holdover they're incapable of recognizing, is fodder for endless speculation: what in the world are they reacting to? Do they see something in the world I can't? Do they have some inside info gleaned from another realm? Is that why they refuse to talk on the phone, avoid bleached flour, retreat into hiding and so on?

I won't go on and chronicle the wonderful life I had with that car. I won't recall with dog-eared fondness the day I got it up to 100 MPH in about 10 minutes, I wont tell you about this certain rise in a certain part of a certain road that I love to drive because it made the car creak in the most comforting way (just like the handles of my childhood bike), I won't dramatically restage the time the back window was shot out and how I turned on the back wiper thinking the cracks in the glass were ice. Nor will I describe the circumstances of the loss of that car, because this is not the story of my old Volvo. This is the story of the Volvo 740--the car of the present.

The 740 of course was at a disadvantaged from the get-go. I left the old Volvo with the dealer the day I got the 740, so of course whatever I saw when I was wrenched away from my old car was going to look insufficient. It didn't help that the 740 was in excellent shape. With less than 100,000 miles and a pristine exterior, this was a car that had clearly been treated right. While most car owners would appreciate such I thing, I saw it as evidence of the car's lack of mettle. Untested, and free of battle scars, I saw no reason to respect it. 90 odd miles of road experience was nothing compared to the 250,00+ miles the 240 had put in. The comparisons were beginning already. And though I didn’t want to admit it, I probably sensed I was unfit for a"nice" car. Knowing what I demand of cars (both emotionally and mechanically), I knew this Volvo would only degrade with me at the helm. Perhaps I wanted it pre-degraded, like the 240, so I wouldn't have to blame myself for its decline.

Like some sort of sentimental story of love, loss and rebirth, the early days with the 740 matched very closely the story line of emotionally closed-off widow unresponsive to the love of a plucky young orphan in her charge. The car's icy cool air conditioning, clean interior and willing start all left me impassive and doubtful. "Sure it starts okay now" I'd think, with the typical skepticism of those afraid to love again. "But how soon with it start stalling? Probably any day now." No matter how low-maintenance and pleasant the car seemed, I remained impervious to its charm. When I spoke of it, I always had some sort of subjective complaint. "The 240's just feel more solid," I'd say. "These 740's seem more plasticy. And the shifting seems jerkier. My old car…" and of course I'd use this as an opportunity to revisit the golden days and golden flaws of the old 240.

The years passed and the car did degrade but rather than interpret its problems as the long-awaited emergence of its charm, I saw them as just flaws. When the car began leaking oil, it was a perfect opportunity to say "The 240 never leaked oil. It barely even used any oil!" I dutifully fed the car a quart of oil every week, but, like an adult child taking care of a invalid parent with whom she never got along, within my very caretaking there was an element of disregard. I never used a funnel when pouring oil, nor did I make any heroic effort to keep it from spilling. Once, the spilled oil ran down the engine casing and caught on fire. I remember looking down at the flames with a complete, even sociopathic, disinterest in what this might mean for the car's survival. "So it burns." I thought, without making a move to stop it.

The interior of the car began to resemble the old 240. Since Volvos in the old days had no cup holders, my center counsel served as stand-in. Coffee after coffee fell over, eventually producing a layer of loose change fixed and suspended in the hardened spill. It was a little like those fossilized bugs preserved in amber. But while the interior was taking on all the mystery and history and artifacts of my existence, the outside of the car remained as nice as ever. No rust, and a perfect paint job. Occasionally, I'd draw attention to how perfect it was, as if that was the only reason I tolerated it. "Well, its okay" I'd say, with a purposeful lack of conviction. "At least it looks good from the outside."

Not for long. On the way back from school one day, a Gordon Food Service truck hit the car, crushing the left fender, shattering the side mirror, crumpling in the passenger side door and ripping off the trim. Because of insurance nonsense, all I got was $500 to fix it, far below what it would have taken. So now the car was officially, in the eyes of all seeing Kelly Blue Book, worthless. Rather than embracing the car because it was now, really and truly as shitty as the 240, I used this as an opportunity to sound the death toll. It seemed it had nothing going for it now. By all accounts, this should have been the end.

And it seemed it was. By some miracle, I had a job that was high paying for a few months. I bought a new Ford Focus and gave the Volvo to my parents to deal with. Perhaps it would have been sold or junked, but the title was lost, so it languished. During this time, I was experiencing the joys of a non-Volvo, new car. No mysterious problems. No uninterruptible warning lights. No counter-intuitive controls. My relationship with this car was all-business. But I wasn't happy. The car pinched a nerve when I tried to cross my legs during my long commutes and I missed having a feeling towards a car. I was truly indifferent to the Focus--a contrast to the showy indifference I had towards the 740. Maybe indifference so strenuously displayed deserves another term. I suppose I missed whatever you'd call that feeling.

Months passed, and the title of the 740 was never found. My mother, with her typical impulsivity, fixed some of the its internal problems. I no longer had my high-paying job. So when my mom offered to take over the Focus and give me the 740 back, I said I had to think about it. A few more drives with the Focus--so dull a car it didn't ever rise my ire for its dullness--I decided to take the 740 back.

The whole situation with my car reminded me of a young adult book called "The Witches of Worm." The plot goes like so: a young, troubled girl finds an ugly wormy black kitten whom she dubs "Worm". She bottle raises it seemingly just to kill the time. It grows up to be a mean-spirited creature that incites her to do bad things. She half-seriously speculates that it's possessed. She continues to feed and take care of it although it disgusts her. Eventually, she and another troubled youth try to exorcise the cat. The cat escaped, runs away, falls off some ledge outside and the main character thinks he's dead. But he isn't. That night, alone with the more subdued cat (who knows if this is from a successful exorcism or exhaustion) she says "I was really sorry you were dead." That line has risen unbidden in my mind over the last ten years. It’s the most couched and conservative of compliments, and what a strange tense! So few people would ever have the occasion to say it. And I love the grudging agreement she has with the cat. I love the notion of grudging agreements.

I suppose I was really sorry the 740 was dead. When I got it back, all the resentment came back to me, but this time with a kind of glory. How sublimely familiar it was! There's a line by Emerson that says something about how great writers show the "alienated majesty" of our rejected thoughts coming back to us. Is that what I experience when I sit down in that car with a combination of resentment and fellow-feeling? The great tiller of time should have dragged the 740 under by now but there it sits in the coffee-shop parking lot. Silently witnessing my days, it sees how so few are worth witnessing. In my favorite poem, "Days"--also by Emerson--he describes how unimpressive his affairs are in the lofty expectation of the days themselves. An alteration of his quote will serve:: "And under [the 740's] solemn [headlights] I saw the scorn."

The 740 and I have don't have a relationship. We have an arrangement. When I open the car door and sit down, I feel everything is acknowledged. "Yes, I'm a mess. Yes, I regress daily. Yes, my daily doings are nonsensical." I'm forthcoming because the car is now so saturated with my flaws that how could I do otherwise? The filth, the disrepair, the noble bearing--all my paradoxes made manifest. The 740 serves, if nothing else, as a holy place for my vices. For that reason, I grant it a grudging respect(although the 240 probably could have performed this role better, I have to say).

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Venerable Personage

I am not a central player at the place where I'm now employed. No one looks to me for nuanced advice on handing the administration, no one turns to me for measured diplomacy when tensions run high among the faculty, no one breaths a sign of relief when I agree to take on the thorniest of thorny issues, no one ever makes the comment that "with McFawn at the helm, by god, I think we just might make it through." No, I am not a central player, and probably that's best: I would get too far into the role, be all things to all people, and then forget (or get too lazy) to hide that I was all things to all things to all people, and people like nothing less than when your all-thingness isn't exclusive. My cleverness doesn't backpedal well, so when my divided loyalties and two-facedness were outed, I'd have no recourse but to avoid eye-contact and halfway shrug.

I make up for my lack of this type of centrality by sitting smack dab in the middle of it all. I plop myself down right there in the main office, right in the hub of all the activity. All around me, copy machines, mail slots, computers, printers, secretaries and staff function and whir, while I sit still, only moving slightly to turn a page or find a pen. Sitting so quietly and so centrally, I might look, to an alien observer, as if I were the cause of all this scurrying, as if all these bustling people and machines were working so hard so that I, honored as I was, might remain unperturbed.

In my central spot, I see a lot of comings and goings, a lot of pleasantries exchanged, a lot of papers being gathered and disseminated: in short, there's not much to see. However, there is one venerable personage, as Hawthorne might say, who makes himself known several times a day when I'm there. He's probably in his sixties somewhere, maybe older, and uses one of those canes with the three pronged base. I say he "makes himself known" becomes every time he appears in the office, he does so with a strange air of purposeful conspicuousness.

Because he uses a cane, he is, maybe unfortunately, more conspicuous by nature. A cane and two feet, however well orchestrated their routine, make for a dissonant approach. At first, I speculated his conspicuous personality might be a response to the cane. Perhaps he's disgusted by the implications of trying to downplay the limp and the cane; perhaps he thinks that would smack of shame and meely-mouthed denial. In defiance of such a simpering response, he proudly doubles his conspicuousness by piling on the strange mannerisms. He always talks: sometimes he mutters to himself in mock-annoyance, just quiet enough to be out of earshot, just loud enough to wish you were closer to see if you were indeed making his words out right. He seems to find a lot of reasons to talk to office workers, and his end of the conversation always is loud and general enough to sound like an announcement.

There's also a lot of theatrical emphasis to his movements. He'll smack his hand down on the main desk, in the same manner as someone smacks the hood of prize car after calling it a "beauty." He'll tear his mail out of the mail-slot as if anticipating it might give him a fight, and when he talks to office workers over the counter, he puts his whole forearm up there and leans in--an overstated gesture of familiarity and heartiness. Sometimes he gets a look of dramatic puzzlement on his face, as if sending up the image of the befuddled old man who wandered into too-modern times. "What's a PDF file? Eh?" And when he can no longer maintain anyone's direct attention, he addresses himself in an amused tone, perhaps reminding himself of his next task, or admonishing himself for forgetting what his next task was.

The overall impression he gives is of someone who wants to be engaged. His out-loud observations seem to be beg to be put into play and bantered back from somewhere else . On the other hand, his way of speaking is addressed to everyone, and therefore to no one. Responding to him directly and personally would seem strange, like thanking the intercom at Meijer's for mentioning a sale in aisle C. But since I don't shrink from addressing the un-addressable, I've thought about responding to him in some way. Yet something about the look on his face pulls me up short. How is it that someone who seems to socialize with the world-as-a-whole would look so downright unsociable?

It might be that all his presentational joviality is not really social at all. In his actions and talk, he seems to acknowledge everything a passerby might think of him: "Sure I have a cane! And don't you forget it! Watch me bring it down with conviction!" or "You're damn right I'm from another time. And you're doubly right that I don't belong here one bit! See! I don't understand the way things work 'round here! " The function of his whole persona might be to preempt these perceptions of him. By displaying that he knows what he is, no one can think to themselves 'I've got the old guy pegged." Still, what's point of it? What is he preventing or encouraging by this showy self-knowledge?

I've seen this behavior in other old men, and in a recovering alcoholic. People who have a weakness that they believe they can't hide sometimes make a show of acknowledging it. The recovering alcoholic had what seemed to be a purposely unpolished manner, a way of saying "It would be absurd for me to act poised or in control of anything with my history." Old men get into playing old men to confirm they're in complete acceptance of their lot. This venerable personage might consider both his age and his cane a weakness, one with which (he tells himself) he's made a mirthful peace. And it is this he so forcefully displays. Still, displaying such a thing so strongly is actually off-putting. Imagine a conversation where two people excessively introduce themselves:

"Hi, I'm McFawn. I am in the marginalia of society. I make notations on what I see. I scrawl, but the world is in typeface. Does that make me an iconoclast? You're thinking I think that I am. But believe me, I am too skeptical to believe in iconoclasm as anything more than inverse conformity. And I know that has no inherent worth."

And so on. Nothing is more antisocial than trying to control someone else's perceptions past the point where they would even bother to perceive. But there's still something appealing in it. People who announce themselves tend to talk more freely, tend to be more amusing, and often have the delightful habit of speaking in confidence with strangers. It's as if they figure everyone already knows them because their introduction is built into their mannerisms. This is a charming misperception.