Note from Kay: This week I invited Terry Owen (my partner) to contribute a piece about why his car hardly ever leaves the driveway anymore. I’ve seen it just sit there for longer and longer periods since he moved here four years ago. When we first met, if he asked me to go with him somewhere, I figured I’d be sitting in the passenger seat of his car, kicking back and watching the scenery go by. These days if he wants me to go with him somewhere, I assume we’ll be riding our bikes. I do know he walks for a couple hours each morning, arriving back home three hours or so before I get up. I see the proof—he has an app on his phone that keeps track of his miles, and sometimes he lets me look at it. So I have a lot of evidence of how his habits and life have changed. But I wanted to hear his story, in his own words–how he experienced it unfolding. So this is it.
Part 1: Royal Oak, Michigan. Paradise.
My friends Petey, Ricky C., and Dennis agreed: Vermont Street was the best of all possible worlds. The snow fell abundantly in winter; the sun shone exuberantly in summer; wild areas abounded, as did a plenitude of basements, attics, and secret hideouts. The afternoons, weekends, and school-free summer months afforded us endless games of baseball, tag, Hide and Go Seek, kickball, and Red Rover, to say nothing of freestyle running, hopping, skipping, tree-climbing, tree house-building, fence-jumping, bike-riding, and Good Humor ice cream-consuming. Sometimes, during a particularly hot stretch, members of the fire department would use their giant wrenches (themselves a source of fascination) to pry open the fire hydrants and unleash deluges of water. As we frolicked in the torrent of water that poured from the hydrants, revealing rainbows in the air before crashing down and cascading through the street, it seemed as though all the usual stringent rules governing civic order had been temporarily suspended. (It was the same sort of feeling I had during the holy night of Halloween.)
Having established in our minds the superiority of this, our Edenic environment—mosquitos, mandatory schooling, and the fists of local bully Ricky T. notwithstanding—the lads and I began to initiate strategies that would help us, within the parameters imposed by our limited social capital, to remain in this paradise for as long as our strength and spirits obtained. In our most secret hideout—behind the rose bushes in front of my house—we cut our thumbs with penknives and then pressed our digits together, just like we’d read about in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” making a solemn blood oath that we would remain best friends until the end of time. (The general idea, as far as I remember, was that we would all eventually live together in a large house, just like The Monkees did, have chimpanzees as pets, build hidden rooms behind bookcases, eat pizza for dinner every night, and drink Vernors ginger ale whenever the fancy struck us.)
We determined that we could substantially abet our cause if we all adopted the mantle of forensic anthropologist and carefully examined the often-inexplicable actions, expressions, and belief systems of our parents. Having a deeper understanding of their ideologies and rituals, their rages and joys, their motivations and philosophies of punishment and reward, would, we believe, gain greater insight into adult culture in general, and discover, if we were fortunate, potential weaknesses that could be explored and exploited, until such time as we could strike out on our own.
And so, we each began to examine our own assigned parent(s), taking field notes and comparing our findings.
In my own set—a father named Lowell and a mother named Jo Ann—one thing I found baffling was the presence of rituals, both vocal and physical, whose function seemed to lack any specific meaning, provenance, or emotional resonance. Why did they exist? I wondered. What purpose did they serve? I focused at first on their apparent echolalia, which I found interesting. Later, after hearing the same phrases from my friends’ parents, I began to wonder if all adults attended a special school, where they were taught a common set of vocalizations to be employed. (That was my working theory, anyway.)
As an example: If I was dawdling over a loathed dinner—usually one involving a canned vegetable, although peas were by far the most revolting—my mother would invariably say, in a flat tone unsuited to the horror she was describing, “Eat. There are children starving in China.” (I don’t know if I ever worked up the courage to suggest that perhaps we could send some of our peas over to those poor children, thereby solving both our problems.) She also frequently said that she wouldn’t do this, that, or the other activity “for all the tea in China,” thus further alarming me about what exactly was going on in that country.
The findings of Petey, Ricky C., and Dennis concurred: their mothers, too, were fixated on China.
Another common reference, with slight regional variation, was the indication that the four of us, at different times, possessed a quantity of something that exceeded the number of pills held by, alternately, “Doans” or “Carter.”
We imagined warehouses filled from floor to ceiling with pills of every size, color, and shape.
My father, albeit a man of few words (since he was rarely home), would often inform my brother Kent and me, if he heard us complaining about something, that “the tough get going” when the “going gets tough.” And when, after being adjudged guilty of some offense, I was spanked with his belt—a punishment whose frequency increased over time—he would invariably say that “This is going to hurt you more than it hurts me.” (To my way of thinking, this claim was objectively false by any unit of measurement that could be employed. I always waiting for the time when it actually did hurt him more, but it never happened.)
Both these phrases, too, were echoed by other neighborhood fathers.
Eventually, our studies were extended from strictly home-based observations. Teachers, of course, were natural subjects for study, being the genre of adults most readily at hand. One of the first things we noted was that most of them were singularly obsessed with straight lines. They forced us to march in military formations, like boot camp recruits, as we left or approached classrooms. Any slouching or imprecision, any stumble or inadvertent breaking of ranks, even an errant snicker, would result in our having to return to the starting point and begin the march afresh. After school, we would ask each other: what is the purpose of these formations? Do they improve our education, or are they simply a method of bureaucratic control?
Queries to teachers about these formations would invariably result in the tautological response . “We walk this way at school because this is the way we walk at school.” The emptiness of the explanation was not lost on us.
This curious obsession was even brought to bear on our duck-and-cover practice, which we sometimes performed in hallways, since one could not predict one’s location when the bomb was dropped. During hallway practice teachers would insist that we line up in order from tallest to shortest—sparking arguments among my peers regarding the fairness of hair height as a mode of measurement— before we were allowed to crouch and cover our heads with our arms, to ward off the evil effects of the Communist bombs.
In retrospect, I suppose orderly corpse arrangement was an important post-apocalypse consideration.
Moving beyond the teachers, we noted that almost every adult we encountered, regardless of their intelligence, was utterly convinced that immersing one’s body in water less than thirty minutes after the consumption of food—even a handful of potato chips—would likely result in stomach convulsions, paralysis, or death.
My friends and I would eat in secret, then leap into pools, lakes, streams, or whatever body of water we could find. And yet, despite our continuing healthy existence, the warning persisted.
Frequently, we were warned—as depicted so memorably in “A Christmas Story”—that activities exceeding the boundaries of adult acceptance would result in the loss of an eye.
Sitting too close to the television would result in the loss of both eyes.
Eating candy during a period designated as “too close to dinner” (a fluctuating time) would presage the ruin of our appetites, a consequence that was, given our mothers’ ongoing concern, apparently quite dire.
Swallowed watermelon seeds would grow in our bellies; bats would entangle themselves in our hair. Cats were demons out to steal our breath, or give us horrific diseases. The areas behind our ears were accumulations of unspeakable filth, to such degree that these unregarded areas had to be vigorously cleaned and sanitized before we were allowed to sit down at the dinner table. Certain clothes had to be worn on designated religious occasions; failure to do so would arouse God’s wrath.
Pointing out the number of seeds we had swallowed, or the lack of bats in our hair, or the continued breathing of our healthy, cat-owning friends, or the complete absence of dirt behind our ears, or the fact that Dennis hadn’t worn a tie during Easter and was still walking the planet, did nothing to end the barrage of phrases.
(Speaking of spiritual matters: it was clearly implied by my parents that forgetting to name-check a relative or friend during the nightly “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer could possibly engender the sudden death of that person. This pressure—which I’m not sure I completely believed, but still, why take chances?—made me dread the advent of nightfall. [To be honest, there was the fear that God, despite my hopes, wouldn’t “take” my soul were I to “die before I wake.”] On a more philosophical level, I couldn’t help noticing that my parents insisted we say prayers even though they themselves had absolutely no religious conventions, never attended church, and only sent my brother and me to a nearby Methodist Sunday school to take advantage of free child care.)
My friends and I marveled at the information we were gathering. It seemed that we could, had we the expertise and technology, easily design a robot parent, programmed with a limited menu of behaviors and expressions, that would have blended in perfectly at a neighborhood barbecue or PTA meeting without raising any suspicion.
The existential question that haunted us: was there a point at which we, too, would turn into these types of adults?
Part 2: Phoenix, Arizona. Inferno.
A later ritual was the dreaded Sunday Drive This affair was initiated after my father, in 1967, suddenly pulled up stakes and transported our little family from its idyll in Royal Oak to some place on the other side of the world called Phoenix.
On the plane ride, I remember consoling myself with the idea that I would be living in the Wild West depicted in movies, which is what I presumed Phoenix was. I was quickly disabused of this notion.
After some time, and sensing some that his spouse and two children were struggling to adapt to the hellish new environment, my father decided that family harmony could be reestablished if all of us piled in the car and drove randomly around Phoenix each Sunday afternoon, without goal, without reason, but simply to drive for the sake of driving. (I did a little research when I was older and found that Sunday drives were common in the U.S. in the 1920s and 30s. Back then, people would drive around simply to enjoy the still-novel pleasure of motoring. In the late 60s and early 70s, the reason for the ritual disappeared, but the ritual itself continued.)
My outrage at these forced excursions was profound. Had I had not suffered enough, leaving behind my friends, beloved relatives, and idyllic life in the Great Lakes State? Couldn’t I just be left alone in my room with my Marvel comics and Ray Stevens 45s? To make matters worse, my brother and I were forbidden from bringing any “reading material” on these trips, since 1), my parents determined that we would likely become “car sick” were we to read in a vehicle; and 2), the expectation was that we were to enjoy either the scenery or the city, which enjoyment would then (it was assumed) profit us in some unspecified manner.
I loathed every second of the unrecoverable weekend time I was forced to relinquish. I remember one time in particular . . .
HELLO. THIS IS THE EDITOR SPEAKING. ISN’T IT ABOUT TIME YOU THOUGHT ABOUT WINDING THIS UP?
Sorry. I was enjoying the reminiscences. I thought maybe the readers . . .
JUST GET ON WITH IT!
Anyway, the years passed, and this, that, and the other thing happened; and eventually, I found myself at knocking on the door of Part 3 of this blog post.
Part 3: Tucson, Arizona. A Bit Inferno-y, A Bit Purgatory-y, and Finally, More Paradise.
As an adult, married for the second time, living in Tucson and working remotely, I generally thought about driving about as often as I thought about respiration. Which is to say: hardly at all. Breath was not a concern, unless I was out of it from exertion, or enduring a bronchial infection. The same held true for my car. As long as it was functional, I paid it scant heed. Driving was what one did, notwithstanding my vague self-perception as a situational environmentalist.
The truth is, it’s quite easy to believe that one additional car on the road makes not a canned pea’s worth of difference in the overall carbon output generated on a daily basis across the world. So why not drive? Besides, I needed the car for necessary trips, right? Like obtaining coffee from Circle K, or groceries from a store that might be a few miles away from whatever house I happened to be living in? I drove to bars to provide or receive entertainment; movie theaters and restaurants, for movies and food; the houses of friends or my surviving relatives up in Sun City; or because I was tired. Or it was hot. Or cold. Or windy.
To paraphrase: I drove a car because driving a car is what we do. I didn’t realize that I had fallen into the same trap of acting without thinking, of enacting an empty ritual, just like the parents I described earlier.
I didn’t realize that I had turned into exactly the kind of adult my childhood friends and I used to observe with wonder mixed with horror.
Sure, there had been intimations. Hints. Warnings. For a time, when I lived in California, I drove from my West Hollywood apartment to Long Beach, worked in a waterbed warehouse during the day, then drove back home in the evening. In this case, however, driving meant inching along in traffic with thousands of other drivers. Stopping. Starting. Stopping. Starting. The approximately 37-mile trip would sometimes take an hour and a half to complete.
As I looked around at the hundreds of mostly-stationary cars, I would notice that few drivers seemed upset by this glacial pace. It was just the way life was. I did my best to contain my mounting fury and keep my Datsun Honey Bee creeping forward.
Things changed in December of 2009, when my wife Jennifer suddenly died at the age of 40. After her funeral, although I maintained a surface functionality— staying in contact with my three wonderful boys from my previous marriage; retaining my job; playing music; visiting with friends; attended Passovers hosted by members of Jennifer’s family—I began to submerge. I covered all the windows of the little house I was renting and kept mostly to myself, continuing to exist a matter of habit. My health, already poor, began to decline precipitously, though I paid it scant attention. When my doctor told me that I was, in addition to hypothyroidism, sleep apnea, atrial fibrillation, high blood pressure, and obesity, now afflicted with cardiomyopathy, my primary interest was in leaving the office as soon as I could so I didn’t have to interact any more with him.
A few years later, as my attitude (if not my health) became more positive, I was introduced to a woman named Kay, the creator of this blog. We were brought together by longtime mutual friends, who thought that the two of us might hit it off due to perceived political affinities. We met at a Fourth of July party, went on a subsequent hike, started to like each other, etc., etc., etc.
We are currently in the midst of ninth year together. It still doesn’t seem possible. A bonus: Jennifer’s family immediately accepted Kay as one of their own.
With the advent of this thoroughly unexpected relationship, I started to become more invested in my health, since Kay was obsessed with things like plucking the fruit from saguaros and riding her bike everywhere. (Should I mention that she had sold her car years ago?) This investment reached fruition when the next doctor visit indicated that I was sliding headfirst into a pre-diabetic state; that, indeed, I may have already dipped a toe or two over the border.
This warning signal finally got my undivided attention.
There followed an immediate change in diet and habits. (Kol tuv, bagels! ¡Adiós, tortillas!) I began walking and biking more, although it was admittedly a struggle at first. After a time, my weight began to drop, a condition which is always a positive motivation, both psychologically and physically. As I increased the range and degree of walking and biking, I decided to monitor when and why I used the car, with an eye toward significantly reducing any thoughtless driving.
I discovered an interesting mathematical ratio. The less I drove the car, the more I loathed being in it on those occasions when I did drive. It was a form of car sickness different than the malady my parents warned us about.
I also began to observe myself as I drove. The first thing I noted was a feeling of tension whenever I sat behind the wheel. (It had happened before, of course but I had just accepted this tension as a given.) I began to wonder: why aren’t there even more accidents than are already reported? Everything involved with driving was a brutal competition, imaginary points scored or taken away depending on whether I was able to outmaneuver this car or that truck as we fought for space in the crowded streets. Road rage was never far below the surface; frequently I would find myself screaming profanities at fellow drivers for the slightest infraction, even knowing that such behavior was perhaps clinically insane. (I won’t tell you about the time I chased a chap for several miles because he nearly plowed into me when I was exiting a store parking lot.)
More alarmingly, pedestrians and bicyclists, rather than being acknowledge as my natural comrades, were viewed through the windshield as loathsome impediments to my goal of getting to a destination as quickly as possible, or before the light turned red. “Oh, no!” I would wail, whenever I saw an older person or somebody in a wheelchair crossing the street. “They’re going to take forever!”
I was never particularly fond of myself in the best of times. However, I utterly detested the person I was while in a car. There was nothing I could do to change it; any attempts to maintain a placid interior were revealed as sham less than two minutes into every drive.
Which is when I decided to (mostly) stop driving.
Over time, I had developed a ritual of walking around town for two hours or more before work each weekday. This was done partially for exercise and partially to maintain my sanity; my job in academic publishing involves many overlapping deadlines, and requires that I stare into a computer screen seven or eight hours a day. During these morning perambulations, I began to arrange matters so that I might stack my functions. For example, I could arrange the end of my walk to correspond with a visit to Safeway, to pick up some vegetables or mushrooms for that night’s dinner. Or I could take my bottles and other glass objects to drop off at a city recycling center (home pick-up of recyclables had been halted) that functioned as the furthest point east I would reach before starting the return journey.
My current car, a 2008 Pontiac something-or-other, given to me by my mother a year or so before her death, began to sit idle for longer stretches of time.
The less I drove, the less I wanted to drive. And the less I wanted to drive, the more joy I experienced as I walked or bicycled across town. I will gladly admit to periodic feelings of smugness whenever I chanced to pass a line of fifteen or more cars waiting to turn right at an intersection.
The difficulties associated with walking and biking—summer heat, flat tires, tripping over unseen impedimenta, the periodic danger posed by distracted motorists or the more chemically-distracted individuals roaming the streets at 5:00 am, who tend to be quite expressive as they battle fighting unseen demons—are as nothing, in my opinion, compared to the nightmare of driving even a short distance.
I feel extremely fortunate to be living with Kay in a midtown house that is within a couple of miles of downtown, or the University, or Natural Grocers, or Arroyo Chico, or the weekly farmer’s market on Tucson Boulevard. I understand that many people across the country do not have the same opportunities I do.
However, like all people, I take advantage of those advantages I have.
On the last day of 2021, I decided that I would keep a journal of the number of miles I walked and biked versus the number of miles I drove during the coming year, vowing that I would drive the car only when it was crucial. Fortunately, “crucial” is a subjective term. For example, in January, Kay and I took the car for 24 mile trip so we could go hiking with a friend in the desert west of town. This friend’s partner, who has health problems, didn’t want us to occupy the same vehicle during a time when the Omicron variant was reaching its apex. Therefore, rather than carpooling, we took separate vehicles.
The results as of February 28, 2022:
I don’t cite these totals to signal moral superiority, as some of my friends have alleged, but only to indicate how my thinking and behavior have changed. Moreover, I’m fully aware that my efforts will have absolutely no effect on the climate horror that is unfolding all around us. As an example: after I walked my bottles to one of the city recycling centers, I came across this Dumpster behind the neighborhood bar, filled with bottles headed for the landfill.
However, I firmly believe just because my efforts amount to nothing doesn’t mean they’re not important.
Also: I don’t have cardiomyopathy any more.