profound changes

My car died a dramatic death last Saturday.

I was driving on a beautiful spring day with the top down. Elizabeth was in the passenger seat. We were going to get my hair cut.

At the intersection in front of the salon the car made a loud, explosive noise. Not a backfire, but something coming from deep within, hardened metal against hardened metal. It continued to run, but just felt different, even with the clutch in and just rolling. Elizabeth has been suggesting for some time that I should replace the car. It is kind of beaten up and never has been terribly reliable. She said something about the loud noise being some kind of sign, and asked “why don’t we go look at cars?” “Sure,” I said, so we passed on the haircut and headed for the local Auto Mall.

We finished the journey on foot.

I’m not entirely sure what happened, but it involved the transmission, lots of oil, a good deal of smoke, and people in surrounding cars honking at us, pointing and gesturing hysterically. A half mile from the first car dealership, we pulled into the parking lot of an Australian-themed steak restaurant and parked.

I have been driving convertibles since 1986, when I bought a barely year-old black Volkswagen Cabriolet that I proceeded to drive for eighteen years. It still ran well when I donated it to the local public radio station after buying a four year old white Volkswagen Cabrio — the same car now smoking quietly in a steakhouse parking lot. I assumed, therefore, that I would be buying another convertible.

Back before I bought the Cabriolet, several people told me that it was foolish to buy a convertible. “After six months, you’ll never put the top down” was a familiar refrain. “They’re noisy, they leak, they’re easy to steal.” But, my goodness, unless it was actively raining I always put the top down, day after day for over two decades. It was wonderful — I didn’t care that my cars were older, small, odd-looking. What mattered was that they were roofless. I suppose they did leak a bit more than other cars, but it was never really a problem. Perhaps they were a bit noisier when the top was up, and a lot noisier with the top down, but it hardly mattered. In 22 years I had to replace one top because somebody cut it trying to steal the car, but they never actually got in. A small price to pay for the hours and hours of sunshine and wild scents and view of the sky I enjoyed whenever I went for a drive.

But here’s what happened. I have two Most Excellent Children: Matthew is now six, and Joshua is two. They have to ride in the back seat, which means the car has to actually have a back seat. The Cabrio back seat was barely adequate, but between the reliability problems with that car and the ill treatment at the hands of the local Volkswagen dealership’s service department, I really wasn’t interested in another VW. Plus, the back seats of convertibles are windy places, and neither of the children are happy driving with the top down. When I added together the need for a good-sized back seat, my desire for a small, fuel-efficient vehicle, and the constraints of my budget, only the Toyota Solara Convertible really fit the bill. So, when we arrived at the Mall, we test drove the Solara — and didn’t really like it at all. I ended up leaving the Mall in a Honda Civic Hybrid.

For the first time in 22 years, I am driving a car with a steel roof. There isn’t even a sunroof. What’s more, it’s a new car (the last new car I bought was in 1975 — if you exclude a two-week flirtation with a Lotus Esprit that ended up proving the worth of California’s “lemon law”), it’s a four door, and it’s a Honda, my first non-VW. So it’s the end of three-plus decades of Volkswagens and two-plus decades of ragtops. These are big changes for me.

I miss the top-down cruising, but I spend a lot of time on my bicycle towing the boys behind me in a trailer, so I still get my share of wind and sun. I very much like the fit and finish of the Honda and the whizziness and efficiency of the technology. I didn’t really get the hybrid because of the cost of gas: I unpopularly feel that gasoline is underpriced even at $4/gallon and I don’t drive nearly enough for the fuel savings to ever offset the premium purchase price. I didn’t get it to make a personal statement (the hybrid for making personal statements is the Toyota Prius). I just like it. So far (one week and about a hundred and fifty miles), I like it a lot.

My hair still needs to be cut.

That isn’t the only big change. I have been living and breathing inside my email client, Eudora, for twenty years. That’s an eternity in Internet time. The word “email” wasn’t even in the dictionary when I started using Eudora. The World Wide Web has existed only for about half those twenty years. I doubt that most people can appreciate what a profound, frightening change this was for me. My server farm processed just over fifty thousand emails last week, and a healthy percentage of those ended up in my email client. Email has been a fundamental part of my entire adult life, and for the past twenty years “email” and “Eudora” have been nearly synonymous. Alas, development on Eudora (as I have known it) ceased several years ago, and it has become increasingly creaky as new generations of computer operating systems have come out. The replacement product seems to still be a good way off. I just couldn’t afford to wait to switch, since I needed to make the change while I knew that falling back to Eudora was still a viable option if whatever new thing I was trying didn’t work. I’m now a generally pleased Apple Mail user, but there is much in Eudora’s familiar and comfortable interface that I dearly miss. Of note, I elected not to try to import twenty years of accumulated mail, address book entries, filters, and other cruft into Mail. The fresh start was a good move, and it means that I still have an excuse to fire up Eudora from time to time to search my database of old mail.

There is yet another change, though this one is looming rather than accomplished, and it involves something that is more personal to me than even my automobile or my email client. Put simply, for nearly half a century, since Jeff Hayward slugged me in the nose for no apparent reason while I was standing in line in front of my first grade classroom, I have not been able to properly breathe. As is often the case with chronic maladies present since childhood, I really hadn’t been aware of the deficit except when odd circumstances called attention to it (a new partner, for example, commenting on how I always sleep with my arm thrown back over my face pulling on my nose). That all changed when I got a cold last January. I still had the cold (and cough, and sore throat, and red face, and headache) in February. I took a course of Augmentin and prednisone. I tried sinus irrigation. I used up my sick time from work trying to get extra rest. I drove my family and my co-workers crazy with the Cold That Wouldn’t Die. In March I took a course of Depo-Medrol and Biaxin. (Strange side effect: the entire two weeks my mouth tasted as though I was chewing on a wad of rusty steel wool.) Other than turning a little nutty from the steroids, there was almost no change. In April I got a sinus CT scan. Last week I saw an otorhinolaryngologist (who will henceforth be known as “an ENT doc”). The ENT doc looked at the films and pointed out that I couldn’t breathe. Over the decades, the original injury has led to changes in the bone and soft tissue structures in my head, and now I have these persistent symptoms that seem like a cold that never ends. Did I mention the daily headaches and the feeling that the pressure is going to blow my eyes out of their sockets? It has been four months now that I’ve had the pain and pressure, cough and postnasal drip. It appears that it will be some time in July before I can get the necessary corrective surgery.

Those of you who tired weeks ago of my incessant whingeing will be relieved to know that the end is in sight, though still far too distant for my comfort. I need the head cold symptoms gone, but what of the familiar, comfortable crooked obstruction that is my nose? What will it be like to actually breathe? Will I miss it like a balky canvas top on a rainy day? Like a brilliant but aging computer tool? With a real, working nose, will I still be me?

Ron – 18 May 2008