Saturday, July 3, 2010

Wheels: Part 4

Alas, poor readers, I have been negligent in my writing. Forgive me, but know that more delays will likely occur in the future as I make my way through summer. Here is the final installment of Wheels........

Like all of us, I can recall a few stand-out tales from my early driving experiences, like travelling west on a family vacation. My dad let me have the wheel of our Old’s Cutless Supreme, which would do 40 mph just by taking your foot off of the brake, while travelling in the sticks of Utah. I only had my learner’s permit at the time; and when I got stuck behind a long caravan of wide-load motor homes, I put the blue rocket in passing gear, punched it to 110, and overtook them. During this little maneuver my dad leaned over, glanced at the speedo, and settled back without comment. I figured he was either feeling a sense of pride--thinking to himself, “that’s my boy--”or he was trying to avoid making me nervous. My mother was less cautious saying from the back seat, “Don’t EVEN think I don’t know how fast you’re going.” Or was it, “Don’t even THINK I--” My memory is a little vague on that point.
Growing up in Colorado, where you’re either travelling up or down, the thought of using a manual transmission (I was going to call it a standard transmission, but manual transmissions are no longer standard issue) was, well, terrifying. My father decided I would learn in a white Ford pick-up, circa 1963, that had been used to haul water for the highway department during the first twenty-five years of its tortured life. It had three on the tree without synchronizers, and a clutch the disengaged about the point at which your knee met your chin. So my dad thought it would be the perfect classroom for learning to use the clutch. I think that the term, crucible, works for me better than classroom. Every time we would take her out, I’d pray to make all the lights. But invariably I’d end up in the middle of a string of cars on the mean part of a hill, waiting for the lights to change. I knew I had about three inches and maybe ten seconds grace period to find the engagement point and get up the hill without stalling. Well, after four or five stalls and bevies of honking horns, my dad would quietly go around the truck, ask me to slide over, and get us going again. I’d mutter to myself, “One of us is going down, truck, and it ain’t going to be me!” It must have heeded my threat for soon I was happily double-clutching my way around town.
I loved that truck for what it wasn’t. The tappets, and probably every other part of the engine, were loose. So the engine sounded like a menacing Hemi when idling. One sunny afternoon, my friend and I were sitting at a red light when a tricked-out Camero, complete with a chromium supercharger pushing through its hood, rumbled alongside us. I looked over at the other driver and revved my engine. The Camero, as if impressed, answered back; only its reverberations nearly set us on our side. Unruffled, I dipped deeper into the throttle so as to say, “Who’s your daddy?” At which point the light turned green. The Camero had already sped three blocks down the street by the time my white water truck, whining, sputtering, rattling, and coughing its way through the cloud of dust and exhaust fumes left in the wake of the hot rod, reached the other side of the intersection.
I finally achieved the point in my life where I had the means—at least numerically—to purchase a sports car; so I bought myself a 2002 Honda S2000. The latter was a beautiful piece of machinery. My S2K came in silver with a black interior. The car fit like a glove; one entered it like a fighter pilot does an F-16. I know this because it was winter when I bought the car, and I spent a lot of time getting in and out of it while it sat in my garage. The S2K was nearly perfectly balanced, and had a 2L engine putting out 240 ponies (a record for its day). Its Achilles’ heel was its low-end torque which was just that, low. So the S2K was by no means a drag racer. But it was fast once you took it above 5000 rpm, which it was quite content to do right up to its red-line near 9000 rpm. It was night when I first drove the car out of the show room. The salesman had finished reviewing all the features when I started her up by pressing the red button for that purpose. I turned on the lights and the salesman said, “Whoa.” Neither of us had seen the new halogen lamps Honda had fitted the S2000, but when we did, we realized the car had a soul.
I frequently took my sports car out into the country back roads, where I could run it through its paces; I was a bad boy. My favorite story to showcase the outstanding handling of my S2K recounts the time I took my wife to a rehearsal at church. There is a long sweeping on-ramp to the interstate near our house. I would try to run this as fast as possible by finding the most efficient racing line. With my wife in the passenger seat, I ran the ramp. The optimum line required that I bring the car tight to a wall on the right side—a point I usually reached at a speed of around 95 mph. Then I would shoot across to an opposite curve and over a rise to the last long straight stretch to the highway; at the time of this story I crested the curve at about 110 mph. By the time I entered the highway I reduced my speed to the legal limit, and we cruised sleepy down the interstate until we came to the exit ramp. This particular ramp is a tight circle with a recommended speed limit of 25 mph; I took my wife around the loop at 60 mph. The car stuck like glue even though our stomachs didn’t. Finally, I wound us around to the back lot of the church at 45 mph, and set us neatly into a parking spot, decelerating to zero nearly instantaneously. My wife’s palms were sweating as I, with a broad grin on my face, went around the car to open the door for her. In short, my S2K was a gas.
But not everyone liked the S2000. Even though it frequently bested all the sports cars of its class in track competitions, many preferred the raw power of the vet, or the over-steering of the 350Z. I must admit that I quickly tired of having to apologize for my car’s lack of low-end oomph; especially after weeks of my father-in-law boasting of how his ’65 Mustang convertible handily beat my newfangled foreign sports car off the line. I would eventually sell my S2000 to buy my wife a new Acura TL. The reason was mostly to see my wife’s smiling face as she drives her very own sports sedan; although, it doesn’t take a car to make her smile. But certainly part of the impetus in abandoning my S2K was its lackluster torque. And my realization of this caused me to consider a deeper meaning behind all of these matters automotive.
My experiences with that ol’ truck and my S2000 have taught me something about relationships. Human beings tend to approach each other with a list of expectations. The latter have come largely from outside us; we gather and develop our expectations from the various voices of the media or our friends and family. Our expectations also develop from within us as the outside influences color and shape our fears, desires, insecurities, and alike. All our expectations ultimately converge within us as a formula; and this formula is nearly always self-serving to the exclusion of others. At the outset of a relationship, we tend to assess the other person by plugging them into our formula, and we wait to see if we obtain a favorable outcome. Some fail the test immediately; the number and frequency of such cases is proportional to how exacting our formula is. Others pass the test, some with flying colors; it’s like the computer in our mind, after being programmed with the formula, spits out a response, “Oh, this is the one,” or “strike while the iron is hot,” or “you’re in love, you’re in love, you’re in love.” The trouble is that the data given to this computer are usually cursory at best, and really nothing more than first impressions; like with my ol’ truck or sports car, the factors we judge others with according to our formula are all the sounds, style, looks, and carefully crafted endorsements. It isn’t until we have driven them around the block a few times that we discover how well the performance actually agrees with the image and promises. When we do finally quantify the gap between the two—and the gap is usually large—we become disillusioned and frustrated; and our first reaction is to back out and look elsewhere. This happens because we have based our happiness and contentment on fulfilling our expectations, which, as I said earlier, are ultimately self-serving. So we will never be happy because our expectations will never be satisfied because they are founded on an inherently flawed principle.
The joy I experienced with my white Ford pickup or my Honda S2000 grew out of an appreciation of their intrinsic character, not what I hoped to get out of them. The truck was old, worn, and tired, sure; but the challenges that resulted from this reality engendered a sense of accomplishment that would have been missed had everything been slick and easy. As I met those challenges, I grew increasingly fond of that truck, and looked forward to the next encounter. Its personality, crude yet genuine, got under my skin. I quickly forgot about what it wasn’t as I celebrated what it is. Once I discovered the true nature of my S2000, a whole new world of opportunities, experiences, knowledge, and skill opened up for me that I would have lost had I abandoned it right away for the glamour of something else.
Trucks and cars are machines, of course, and can only be improved to a limited extent by our investment in them--not so with people. We forget that the other person in our burgeoning relationship is also tormented by fears and insecurities, and so carry their own raft of expectations. When we abandon them for failing our formula, we not only forfeit the joy and wisdom that comes from celebrating their real self, we rob them of an opportunity for the same discovery of themselves. When this happens, the expectations in the minds of both parties become increasingly unattainable because they become increasingly self-serving. We will never find what will make us happy, which is never what we believe will make us happy, until we help the other person discover their inherent beauty, value, and strengths.
My life on wheels has been froth with metaphoric overtones. One of the great gifts of walking with Christ is the ability to find wisdom in everything, even the most unlikely places. For this reason we do ourselves a disfavor when we confine our lives to tiny little boxes. Jesus taught us that He is Truth and the Truth will set us free.