Friday, October 25, 2013


It's a lovely fall day. One of those days that's meant for driving along the Mississippi River in a convertible, taking in the changing fall colors. I'll bet that's where the woman in the black BMW M3 is headed. I'm looking out the window at her from the Midas near my house. I'd love to be taking a leisurely ride to look at the trees too, but that's not possible, what with my car on a lift. But, hey, if I crane my neck, I can make out some trees behind the strip mall across the street. They're looking a lovely chartreuse color.

I can't complain. I don't have to sit in auto-care shops very often, even though my car is almost 13 years old. Unfortunately, this is my second time at Midas in a week, as a routine oil change revealed some other problems, albeit minor. It gave me time to think, sitting in Midas, sipping my complimentary Diet Coke, about the pros and cons of owning an older car. One pro is definitely the free pop.

But there are many cons. My car is ugly, and it lost its new car smell about 12 years and 9 months ago. My kids don't like riding in it, but for that they really have themselves to blame. The back panel on the driver's side seat won't stay on, so it reveals an unsightly array of wires utilized by the long-defunct seat-heating mechanism. Lily constantly kicked the back of my seat when she was a toddler, and eventually the panel gave up and found a new home the the floor of the car. My kids (along with everyone else) also complain about the unpleasant smell in my car. The combination of Sam's messy eating habits, the foul odors he emits from every orifice, and my attempts to cover the stench with air freshener have turned the smell of my car into something vaguely like the bathroom at Buffalo Wild Wings. It's bothersome enough to Sam that he now rides with his head out the window, not unlike a dog. When the temperature drops below zero, I insist he close the window, so then he just plugs his nose. I've decided that one of those swimmers' nose clips will make a good stocking stuffer for him this year. Perhaps with both his hands free, he won't spill so much food.

As unpleasant as it is to ride in, my car gets pretty good gas mileage, so we usually take it if we're going on a long trip. Like the time we spent a weekend in Milwaukee. We had agreed to take our friends Dave and Molly with us, although when they saw that we were riding in my car, Dave said, "You know, on second thought, maybe I'll drive us." He eventually changed his mind, and to improve the experience for our friends, Brad covered the sticky, crumb-encrusted seats in the back of my car with a blanket. He also reattached the back panel of the driver's seat with duct tape. These quick fixes gave my car the ambiance of a vehicle that might be seen on Sanford and Son, or the Junky Car Club. Perhaps this is why Dave and Molly haven't taken a ride from us since then.

There is one big pro about my car: it's paid for. And contrary to many peoples' car-buying habits, when I paid off my car, I did not take my newly acquired car title straight to the dealership to buy a new one. I know many people who do, though. It's as if the title reads "By the time you own this vehicle, it'll be outdated. Please buy another." And I don't understand it. There is no bigger waste of money than a vehicle. Not gourmet coffee, not air conditioning, not Ugg boots, not BlackBerry stock, not even the new Vikings stadium. And yet people buy them with abandon. When I was younger, I knew people who couldn't afford to move out of their parents' house, but (or because) they bought an expensive vehicle. One such friend repeatedly complained that, at 22, she was too old to live in her childhood bedroom. But you'd never know it by the way she strutted to and from her brand-new Acura Integra. After listening to her complain for the umpteenth time about her living situation, I suggested she just move into her car. Unfortunately, this was right around the time of Chris Farley's SNL skit about living in a van down by the river, and therefore my friend wrote off my idea as just plain foolish.

Spending on what amounts to nothing more than a conveyance simply doesn't interest me. That goes for purchasing a car as well as maintaining one. And yet, my cars love me. I've only owned two vehicles in my entire life, because they stay with me for decades and never fail me despite the way I neglect them. I never wash my car. Ever. I leave it to Mother Nature to wash off the dirt and salt. And even when she doesn't, I wisely chose a car color called Autumn Bronze that hides the dirt remarkably well. In fact, I've decided that every car I ever own from now on will be Autumn Bronze. I know that surprises people who know I'm more of a warm-weather girl, but Summer White would plainly show that I haven't washed the car since I drove it out of the dealership. I don't clean the inside of the car, either. I used to depend on B to clean my car, but he's tired of spending hours trying to clean up a mess similar in scope to a small tornado and receiving nothing in the way of gratitude. But it's not that I'm ungrateful; I just don't notice.

The last time Brad cleaned my car, he was unhappy that I didn't acknowledge all his effort. And rightfully so. I apologized profusely. And then I asked B if he really wanted me to become a person who cares about the cars she drives. I could almost see the thoughts running though his mind: the thousands of dollars we'd be spending on a new car for me; the extra money we'd spend if I actually followed my car's maintenance schedule; the driving gloves, the sunglasses, the Weather-Tech floor liners I'd require. He said no. I know exactly how to appeal to my obsessively fiscally responsible husband.

Speaking of the maintenance schedule that I don't follow, I drag my feet about fixing my car for what I feel are non-critical issues. A power window that won't roll up and down properly is not critical to me; that's why I went for two years without fixing it on my first car. It drove people crazy, and I don't understand why! So what if I had to open the door and step out to get to my coffee? So what if a few five-layer burritos splattered on the ground while I flailed at the drive-through window attendant from my open car door outside Taco Bell? Finally, one day my friend Trent had had enough. He called a service shop and made an appointment for me to get my window fixed. Then he hounded me every day until it was done. I never did fix the dents that I inflicted in my car door from opening it at drive-throughs during the Broken Window years, but fortunately, the constant presence of salt on my car (this one happened to be black--a big mistake) provided ample camouflage.

As my car ages, it has crossed my mind that I may someday need to buy another one. What vehicle would I get? There are so many choices today that it's hard to decide. I can tell you this, though: it certainly won't be a minivan. I deliberately limited my family to two children so I could stay in a sedan. Besides, we already have one large vehicle in our family, and it's not for carrying kids. B requires an SUV just to carry all the stuff he needs: golf clubs, two-by-fours, cases of beer, a kayak, Sheetrock, Lederhosen, bicycles, a lawn mower, poker chips, boulders, a tile cutter, and a gas fireplace insert. And that was just last weekend. B leads a much more exciting and productive life than I do.

Ah, here it comes now, rolling off the lift: my 2001 Infiniti G20.  I'm listening to Seth, the nice man at Midas, describe how my car is all set, and he'll see me at my next oil change. That's right, Seth; I'll see you in about a year, when the leaves are changing again.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

No Trappers -- Please!

I'm conflicted every year when school starts. Part of me can't wait to get my kids out the door, because their boredom after three months of doing absolutely nothing is manifest in their supine position on the floor: arms at their sides, books in hand, glassy eyes staring up at the ceiling, drool running out the sides of their mouths. When I remind them that they're doing exactly what they asked to do over the summer, and that there are plenty of other things we could be doing, their gaze focuses on me for a brief second, and then they return to reading. Most of me, though, misses them when they go to school. Terribly.

There's no such conflict, however, about that end-of-summer ritual, the annual school supply shopping frenzy. I'm just glad it's over. If I were smart, like my friend Krista, I'd get online and order everything from Amazon, and a bunch of high-quality school supplies would arrive in neatly packed boxes at my door. Instead, my frugality (and my husband) demands that I scour the Sunday ads and go from store to store, trying to pick up the cheapest school supplies possible. Perhaps this is why, a month into the new school year, Sam's homework folder has already ripped in two. Those one-cent folders from Office Depot just aren't all they're cracked up to be!

As with most other facets of today's public education, like lunchtime (just enough time to shove dessert in), standardized testing (constant), and the schedule (jam-packed but remarkably sedentary), the process of acquiring school supplies has changed over the years. My parents bought very little, if any, school supplies. Minneapolis Public Schools provided everything we needed back then, and we got to keep everything, or at least borrow things. Unfortunately, today, there are few things that schools will loan to students. And I'm afraid I know why: my sister never returned the clarinet issued to her by Roosevelt Senior High when she graduated in 1979. Of course, she claims that she's still borrowing that clarinet, and that she's planning on returning it just as soon as she's done with it. I suggested that she return it to the old band room as a way to commemorate her upcoming 35th high-school reunion. Her high-school band teacher, if he's still alive, might finally feel a sense of closure from the gesture.

Whether my sister returns the long-lost clarinet or not, the point is that people who abused the generosity of public schools ruined it for the rest of us. I was forced to shell out for Sam's trombone, and let me tell you, I intend to get my money's worth. That boy will be playing that thing until his cheeks are like Dizzy Gillespie's.

Of course, band instruments aren't technically school supplies, and if they were, they'd be at the high end of the school-supply cost spectrum. But the rest of the items add up, both in cost and in the amount of frustration involved in buying them.  I wish I could find the people who created the school supply list for my kids' school (which we'll call Evergreen Elementary), but no one will own up to it.  And if you look through the supply list for the various grades, you can see why.  There doesn't appear to be any logic behind the school supply requirements, unless you're muscle-bound, obsessed with glue and in possession of a constantly regenerating forest.

Take the first-grade supply list, for example. The celebration when my youngest child, Lily, finished first grade rivaled any high school graduation, because I never again had to watch her haul a thick binder stuffed with empty folders and manila envelopes to and from school. I'm sure the teachers had good intentions for that binder; perhaps they thought it would help control the number of excuses for lost homework (although "I lost it in my massive binder" seemed like a reasonable excuse, if you ask me).  But after watching Lily drag home her heavy backpack like a ball and chain every day, I'd flip through each and every folder and envelope and laminated page of outdated math instructions in that binder to find that everything was empty. Oh, there may have been a math worksheet once in a while, and maybe a few spelling words, but nothing that warranted a binder that weighed more than Lily herself.  It took up the great majority of space in her backpack, too. It was tough to squeeze that binder in with all the other items Evergreen School required of her, like her Obama Administration-approved lunch and snack, her gallon of purified spring water, her tub of hand sanitizer, container of sanitizing wipes, bleach pen, organic cotton sweater, all-natural gym shoes, boots, and snowpants (it is Minnesota, after all). Although she never complained about the weight of the backpack, It was difficult to watch her hobble along like a six-year-old Hunchback of Notre Dame. Since then, I noticed that the first-grade supply list has been modified to specify "Large backpack -10x14." Yet, in order to fit everything, the requirement should really be "Mountain climbing backpack, preferably Everest size - 500 x 500."

Out of all the school supply requirements on the kids' list, glue may be the most curious.  At Evergreen School, kindergarten, first, and second graders are required to have glue sticks. Third graders only need white glue.  Fourth graders need both glue and glue sticks. And in fifth and sixth grade, they need just glue sticks again. After careful consideration, Sam determined that the glue requirements are a metaphor for life. You're just learning to use your hands when you're young; therefore, glue sticks are a better option. You get to use liquid glue when you're at the peak of your vitality and therefore at the lowest risk of spilling it. In old age, you lose control of your faculties and have to go back to glue sticks again. I say that's as good an explanation as any. I have my own particular theory about third grade, the one year that several bottles of liquid white glue are required: decoupage. They have to have something to fill that Everest backpack from first grade, and I think an old dresser would fit nicely. Plus, our old dresser would look sharp covered with various pictures of One Direction pasted on with white school glue.

Some parents worry about having every item exactly as it's listed on the school supply list. I was like that too, until I realized that just because something is on the list doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be used. About 30 percent of the supplies you fought for at Target at the end of the summer will come right back to you at the beginning of next summer, like an old war buddy returning home. Just put it in the drawer with all the other old buddies that came home last year and that you forgot about when you needed school supplies this year. You can also probably add all the notebooks that you sent to school that come home with one or two pages filled in out of 70. When your kids graduate from high school, you can open up your own paper-supply store to help pay for college.

Many of today's children, besides being mouthy and lazy, are apparently dehydrated. Therefore, they must have water with them at all times in elementary school. This idea is perpetuated by the media.  Just this morning I saw a local fitness guru on TV pushing water to parents. "Sometimes kids will go an entire school day without drinking water!" The perky personal trainer said with alarm, as if she was announcing that kids go all day without clothes. Well, when they don't have gym and they stand around during their 15-minute recess, they probably don't need to have a bottle of water within reach at every moment. A novel idea would be to a) become thirsty and b) go get a drink from that relic of old, the drinking fountain.  (They just have to remember to apply sanitizer to the spout first.)

My kids are off to a good start at school, even with their cheap school supplies in tow. One thing they don't have though, is a Trapper Keeper. Something must have happened in the fifth grade once with a Trapper Keeper. Maybe someone got injured by the zipper, or perhaps someone was caught carrying something illicit in their Trapper, like a dreidel or a set of Klick-Klacks or a copy of And Tango Makes Three. Whatever the reason, on the fifth-grade school supply list, there's an emphatic "No Trappers--Please!"

So the kids won't have a Trapper Keeper like I did in fifth grade.  Either that, or Evergreen School wants you to stop trying to catch that raccoon that hides out on the playground at night.  Please!