Beloved car may be nearing end

Carlsbad, New Mexico 2007

According to Buddhist teachings, the root of all aggression is desire. Not being attached to a specific outcome — be it with events, people or things — reduces suffering. Buddhism also emphasizes the importance of compassion and, therefore, detachment is not the same as being emotionally null.

In 1988, I moved into a home two blocks north of Ohio State University’s campus with two roommates. Built in the 1920s, the home was simple. The few kitchen cabinets were original, the interior doors were gum wood varnished in a yellowish tint popular 100 years ago.

My roommates eventually graduated and moved away. I stayed, worked at OSU and bought the house. My then-husband moved in with me and I birthed our first two sons in my little house, which is less than half a mile from Ohio Stadium.

Hugo was born during the 1996 OSU-Michigan football game. The neighborhood, which had thrummed with activity all morning, hushed as though plunged into a soundproof room, just as I began pushing. When he was born 21 minutes after kickoff, I heard the cheers of more than 100,000 spectators, seemingly welcoming a new Buckeye to the world.

Two years later, my husband took a job in Pennsylvania and I agreed to the singularly worst financial decision of my adult life: selling the house. In my peripatetic childhood, houses were temporary, way stations for a few weeks or months. I chose my OSU house and stayed there many times longer than I had my parents’ many houses.

Before we left, I crawled through the hole in the closet ceiling of the bedroom where Claude had drawn his first breath. I walked on the rafters away from the attic entrance and, under one of the roof joists, I tucked my love letter to the house.

Throughout the 20 years since, my nighttime dreams are regularly set in that home. Again and again, I return to the first house that sheltered more than my physical body.

In 2002, I picked out my freshly minted girl, a Toyota Matrix. Hearkening the first and best movie in the Wachowski sisters’ series, I didn’t christen her anything else. The dealership had a red Matrix in stock, but red is not my color. Shipped in from a dealership in another state, my girl is light blue and has a roof rack.

The Matrix has been to northern Michigan and back more times than I can calculate. For many years, she carried us to Vermont for our Buddhist family camp where one year a local mechanic replaced her clutch.

Yes, my girl is a 5-speed. If you haven’t driven a standard transmission, you haven’t driven a car. With an automatic, the car does all the thinking, the human just presses one pedal to accelerate, another to slow down. With a stick shift, car and human merge together. As responsive as a horse who knows by the slightest pressure of a human leg what her rider wants, my girl likes to go fast.

Parents are the maestros of their children’s memories. From holidays and birthdays to predictable evenings after school or summer weeks spent with grandparents. The most significant memories cannot be predicted, but reveal themselves when the children have grown.

Such was the cross-country road trip the three big boys and I took in the Matrix the summer of 2007.

Mountain lake at Yosemite

We drove south from Akron, turned right in Georgia, noodled across the South and Southwest, our path zigging and zagging wherever we left I-10 to visit many treasures, both geographic and archaeological, along the way. We carried on westward until we hit the Pacific Ocean in Paso Robles.

Mount Rushmore

Every bucket list should include driving along California State Route 1, a dramatic concrete ribbon fit tight against the coastline like lovers spooning in bed. We again turned right at Yosemite National Park and made our way back to Ohio. Many days the four of us spent 10 or more hours in the Matrix. Today the boys describe the trip as seminal to their childhoods.

When I was pregnant with Leif, Max bought a minivan and the Matrix became the kid car. Claude drove it his last two years of high school. Hugo did the same.

Claude took the Matrix to Ann Arbor his final semester of college. Six months later, Hugo worked at Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts and the Matrix went with him.

Though her motor is still incredibly responsive, the Matrix has aged into a jalopy. The driver’s side window remains permanently closed with duct tape sealing the edges. An inch above the dashboard, a crack runs the entire length of the windshield. The reflection in the right-side mirror, an off-market replacement, wobbles like a fun-house mirror. I stopped replacing hubcaps long ago.

Seemingly out of politeness, the Matrix avoids more than one major expense a year. I have justified a big repair here, tires there, because it’s still cheaper than a car payment and she has continued to be reliable.

Two years ago this month, the clutch went out and came in at just under $1,000. A week later, Claude took Hugo back to school in Rochester and the Matrix broke down in Buffalo. This time it was the transmission.

Because my first ABJ column had not yet run, I know Jim & Sons Transmission treats all customers like family. They drove a tow truck to Buffalo and brought our Matrix back. I bit the bullet and replaced the transmission, but swore it was the last big fix for my girl.

And here we are. She now needs a new battery and alternator, about $600.

Another Buddhist lesson is that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. I must decide if it’s time to shoot our valiant horse or spend the money so Jules, too, can have his turn with the best little car in Akron. And while I do, she rests peacefully in our driveway.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 16, 2018.


Curiosity, essential to learning, is threatened by social media

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Claude picked up Hugo in Rochester and together they drove through Canada to their grandparents’ home in Northern Michigan. On their way, they listened to 1984. Hugo is taking a class on George Orwell, and Claude is reading along.

The rest of us also arrived on Tuesday, but much later, having headed out on the 450-mile trip after school let out. And then, like many families, we cooked, ate and did dishes. And repeat. But in other ways, we strayed from the presumed Thanksgiving conventions (as probably every family does).

American Gothic, Graveside

Wednesday morning, the boys helped bury a body at the city cemetery. As soon as each of them was big enough to hold a shovel, they have helped their grandpa, the city sexton, in the graveyard. It’s there that they’ve come to know their grandpa, and they all enjoy the time together.

Other than the Macy’s Parade, the television stays tuned to Turner Classic Movies. It’s like another welcome guest for the long weekend. The movies on TCM provide crack-sharp dialogue, grand song-and-dance sequences from the Depression era and visually saturated Technicolor musicals from the postwar decades. Who can resist?

Each day, Hugo and I walked the dogs along Lake Michigan. With summer tourists long gone, Petoskey stones, which are unique to Northern Michigan, are as easy to find as fleas on a squirrel. Walking on water-smoothed stones, their colors vibrant when wet, my boy and I chatted. Loud waves crashed on the shore and periodically large ones chased us back, flooding a spot where we were just standing.

We always bring board games, but inevitably play euchre every night. Our games are loud, with players swearing and laughing. Grandma is a euchre shark and will not hesitate to take someone’s seat without invitation. As she’s not one to relax, we love it when she joins us.

I enjoy my young adult children. We share many interests and regularly talk about politics, art, music, literature, science and more. Their knowledge of an array of topics is both broad and deep and I learn many things from my sons.

I assumed most families with young adult children were similar to ours. Then I began teaching college freshmen. Oh, I’ve taught them before, but not since I was in graduate school, and the world is a different place than it was a decade ago.

Adults have always complained about younger generations. Socrates, who lived in the 5th century B.C.E., said, “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households.”

But I love working with 15- to 25-year-olds. Their frontal lobes are connecting to the rest of their brains and the ability for complex thinking explodes. Think of the stereotype of college students sitting around saying things like, “Dude, if the universe is expanding, where is it expanding to? Whoa!”

Back when music was distributed on albums, and later CDs, most purchases were made by 16- to 26-year-olds. This age group has always been a sponge not just for information, but also art, ideas and complex concepts. It’s no coincidence most undergraduate college students are 18 to 22 years old.

The household I grew up in did not expose me to culture, literature, philosophy or art. Though we regularly stayed with family in Chicago, the only museums I visited were on school field trips.

But I was curious and by high school, I was reading voraciously, not just contemporary fiction, but also classics. I also watched movies, again, both new releases and classics. I remember crying inconsolably at 17 after watching Barbara Stanwyck in “Stella Dallas.”

My point is, even without parents presenting the lusciousness of reading good books, watching good movies, studying both history and current events, curious teens can, and often do, find these treasures on their own. Or at least they did.

My classes are filled with bright students. However, when I ask them if they’ve read relatively well-known young adult books, most say no. When I ask if they’ve watched relatively recent movies, most say no. And then there’s music.

In  The Glass Castle, we read about a segregated swimming pool. I recounted the story of management at a Las Vegas casino ordering a pool be drained of its water after a black entertainer swam in it. I mistakenly thought the swimmer was Nat King Cole (it was Sammy Davis Jr.) and asked my 40 students if they know who he was.

Not a one. “OK,” I said, “what about his daughter, Natalie Cole?” Nope, even though she died just three years ago, none of my students knew either of the famous Coles.

I now play music as my students enter the classroom. We’ve listened to many jazz icons — Getz, Davis, Fitzgerald and, of course, Nat King Cole. “Shall we start with a little music?” I ask when I enter the classroom and, to my heart’s delight, my students say yes.

For extra credit, I bring in my New York Times Sunday paper, back copies of the New Yorker, the Smithsonian, the Atlantic and more. For five points, they read an article and write a couple of paragraphs describing the content and analyzing the writing. Several have told me it’s the first time they’ve read a newspaper.

My students are eager to learn; few seem to glaze over when we discuss an array of subjects from politics to graphic novels. So why haven’t they found their way to the brain banquet of arts, history and culture? To answer this, I gave a brief lecture on Karl Marx.

“Opiate of the masses” is how Marx described religion. Were he alive today, he may still hold to his definition, but more than religion, I also think he’d zero in on the tamping down of curiosity caused by smartphones combined with social media. We’re all susceptible to these time vampires, myself included.

When they were in high school, two of my sons switched their smartphones back to basic cellphones because it was affecting their ability to do other things — including homework. I have at least one student in my classes whose deep addiction to his phone parallels the symptoms of drug addiction.

I wish I had a global solution for this very real problem. What I do have is advice for parents: Limit the time your children spend with screens. Do not give them smartphones when they are teenagers. No matter what their peers think, a child without a smartphone is not missing out on anything, but gaining everything.