26 April 2010

Good-bye to all that

Shortly after Sacha was born, a friend stopped by with dinner, and upon seeing a shiny new car in the driveway said, "I don't know what's more surprising, that you have three kids, or a minivan."

Me and the minivan never got along. I drove it for four years, and enjoyed doing so for one billing cycle, which is about the length of time it took for the novelty of automatic sliding doors to wear off.

I'd like to say it's nothing personal, but really, it is. There's nothing materially wrong with a minivan. I have dear friends who not only do not mind, but enjoy, driving one.

I am just not one of them. I have a long list of grievances against it, both ridiculous — I found it  intimidating to drive a car that was taller than me —  and legitimate — the second row sliding doors stick in weather below freezing, forcing passengers to enter and exit via the passenger front door and climb about the cabin in order to get to their seats.

If you are in the business of shepherding a flock of children about, the minivan performs the job with distinction. Designed with family convenience in mind, it has many handy storage compartments. There is a built-in slot for everything from cups to eyeglasses to toys, which makes it not unlike traveling aboard a houseboat. I would not at all be surprised to learn that there are hidden compartments, a-la-Nancy Drew, that I never discovered.

And therein, at least in part, lies the problem. The minivan's commodiousness — it's raison d'etre — overwhelmed me. Perhaps I wasn't woman enough for it. I found driving it not unlike piloting a small boat on dry land. It has the turning radius of a straight edge. In order to avoid hitting a curb, I had to swing so wide that when the front end rounded the bend, the back was left stranded in another municipality.

Behind the wheel I felt like I was in an airplane cockpit, isolated from, yet responsible for the safety of my passengers. The acoustics are terrible, which made it difficult to hear my kids. While this may sound like heaven, it put me in an awkward position. I could pretend to hear them, and thus risk agreeing to something to which I would never acquiesce. Otherwise, I could request that they speak up, but as I spend a considerable amount of time telling them to lower their voices, this is something I never, ever want to do.

But the worst thing about driving a minivan was the filth. The chasm between the first and third row — the children's domain — is large, and it did not take long before the back of the van began to resemble the Collyer brothers' brownstone. Being orderly and controlling, the very thought of going back there made me shudder. If you recall the experience of being many months pregnant, and then getting an unexpected glimpse of your inaccessible lower half, you know what I'm talking about.

The dreaded back row attracted an assortment of items including: books, notepads, writing implements, stickers, sample paint chips, spare change, action figures, matchbox cars, legos. My fatwa against bringing food into the car was difficult to enforce, so at any given time there could be chip wrappers, melted and re-solidified chocolate, snack containers, straws, and beverages in various stages of completion strewn about. And then there were the collections of twigs, rocks, and leaves that children seem to attract, which combined with the cookie crumbs to form a thin layer of humus.

My conviction that the car has a blind spot on the front passenger side of the bumper was validated by a survey of Toyota Siennas in any parking lot, which frequently bore similar patterns of nicks and dents. Our bumper was already in need of repair before I had a fender bender in March, and we were waiting until right before our lease terminated to fix it to avoid the possibility of incurring further damage.

The accident forced us to repair the bumper a few months earlier than planned, but we only had to shell out for our deductible. David and I resolved that when the car was repaired, because it would never again look this good, we had no choice but to get rid of it immediately.

When the body shop called sooner than expected to say the car was ready, I may or may not have replied, "Oh, shit." I disliked the minivan so much that I preferred the rental car, a decidedly unsexy Dodge Grand Caravan. Ambivalently reunited with my own car, I drove straight to a car dealership. Twenty-four hours later, we bid adieu to the minivan, and I drove home in a Mazda 5, which, because I am the zeitgeist, was profiled in the Sunday Times last week

The Mazda 5 is a micro-minivan; it's built on a car chassis, and is about two feet shorter and a half-ton lighter than a typical minivan. It has three rows of seats like a minivan, but seats one person fewer. The first time Sarah got in, she asked if it was a sports car. The experience of trading down to a smaller car has been exhilarating, like exchanging a septuagenarian for a teenage body. Things that were long impossible are now be done with ease. Three-point turns now contain only two points, and when I step out of the car at home, my feet are in my driveway, as opposed to my neighbor's garden. I no longer parallel park as much as glide into tight spaces with one hand on the wheel and my eyes closed.

Although I'm not much of a driver, I am delighting in the experience of being behind the wheel of this smaller, nimbler, and cleaner car. And while the honeymoon will end eventually, in the meantime, to maintain the illusion that the car is, and will forever remain brand new, I subject the children to mandatory disrobing and strigiling prior to entering the vehicle.

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