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Monday, August 29, 2005

Running on Empty

So I’m—we’re—back from dropping off Nick in St. Louis.  We drove home on Saturday, setting a new family record by making the 770-mile trip in one day:  thanks to Jamie for his travelling skills, his patience, and his willingness to entertain himself for twelve hours at a stretch.  Last year we screwed up almost every aspect of the trip: we stayed in a one-star motel, we dined at a skeezy Del Taco at 10 pm because everything else was closed, and I booked one of The Hill’s weakest Italian restaurants for the farewell dinner.  This year we stayed in a good place for cheap, we moved Nick into his dorm with brutal and terrifying efficiency, and we dined at one of The Hill’s best Italian restaurants, where the maitre d’ stopped by to cut up Jamie’s chicken saltimbucca for him and then took Jamie and Nick on a tour of the kitchen so they could see how the gelato and sorbetto are made.  Next year, we want to become even more adept at this game: we’re going to drop off Nick and drive back in one day, slowing down to 30 mph as we approach his dorm and throwing him out of the passenger side with a sleeping bag as he does a drop-and-roll.

St. Louis looks much the same as when I last visited, and because Nick is now a sophomore, I was spared the many wearying challenges of Parent Orientation (though I have to admit I enjoyed the reception with the School of Architecture faculty last year; I did the Orientation drill while Janet and Jamie drove up to Champaign, Illinois), and of course I didn’t have to reprise the traditional father-son knife-fight in the parking lot.  And because we delivered Nick a bit early, we were spared the very worst features of the Annual Parental Infestation—the parade of J. Crew-festooned forty- and fifty-somethings carrying laundry baskets and clock radios for their offspring, fighting with each other (and us!) for the last remaining boxes of inexpensive-but-nice silverware at Target, and recalibrating their families’ wireless calling plans and auto insurance rates for the school year.  You might recall that Don DeLillo’s White Noise opens with such an Infestation; it’s the postmodern version of the Epic List, with noble antecedents in Homer, Virgil, Spenser, and Milton:

The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus.  In single file they eased around the orange I-beam sculpture and moved toward the dormitories.  The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn: the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.

I’ve witnessed this spectacle every September for twenty-one years.  It is a brilliant event, invariably.  The students greet each other with comic cries and gestures of sodden collapse.  Their summer has been bloated with criminal pleasures, as always.  The parents stand sun-dazed near their automobiles, seeing images of themselves in every direction.  The conscientious suntans.  The well-made faces and wry looks.  They feel a sense of renewal, of communal recognition.  The women crisp and alert, in diet trim, knowing people’s names.  Their husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging, accomplished in parenthood, something about them suggesting massive insurance coverage.  This assembly of station wagons, as much as anything they might do in the course of the year, more than formal liturgies or laws, tells the parents they are a collection of the like-minded and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation.

Great stuff, that White Noise.  Written twenty years ago, but still relevant today, like the great timeless classics of literature.  But hey, does anybody remember station wagons?  Does anybody remember stereo sets, phonograph records and cassettes?  For that matter, does anyone remember controlled substances?

I’m serious about the station wagons, actually.  Maybe it’s just the shock of driving two thousand miles round trip to the Outer Banks and then turning around and driving another two thousand miles round trip to the Midwest, but I’m starting to get the impression that no one drives cars anymore: everywhere around me on the interstates it’s SUVs, SUVs, SUVs (I tell you, the movie Robocop, with its SUX 6000 cars with “really shitty gas mileage,” is looking savvier every day).  Not that we’re especially virtuous ourselves: our 2003 VW Passat gets 28-30 mpg (and has great interior room, with a big trunk), but even that kind of mileage means we spent about $350-400 on gas while spewing all our fossil-fuel refuse into the air.  The time seems right for a hybrid—though at this point I’ll try anything, including Floo Powder (there’s no point anymore in developing the car that runs on water: we’ll be all out of water by the year 2078 anyway).  But I can’t even begin to imagine how the SUX-6000 drivers are handling this.  I have to think that, quite apart from the farcical driver-masculinization involved in the SUV phenomenon (as opposed to the soccer-mom minivans, which are considerably safer and more fuel-efficient, hence feminized, hence abject), there’s a perverse kind of conspicuous consumption going on with these top-heavy, tip-on-a-dime boxes-on-wheels: they say, almost as if they carried bumper stickers to this effect, these piddling gas prices of yours are of no concern to me.  Or, as Janet put it, channeling Leona Helmsley:  fuel efficiency is for the little people.  I think the appropriate movie reference here isn’t Robocop so much as The Freshman, with its hilarious depiction of a decadent group of the global ultrarich who dine on nearly-extinct species.  (And if you haven’t seen the scene in which Bert Parks sings “Maggie’s Farm” for those diners, you have missed one of American film’s more sublimely loopy moments.)

Anyway, don’t get me wrong here.  As our national leaders have pointed out, there is no such thing as global warming, and even if there were, it certainly wouldn’t have anything to do with increasingly violent hurricanes.  In fact, I believe that recent studies have shown that SUVs have a beneficial effect on the atmosphere and help to protect us from the sun’s harmful SUV radiation.  Though (via Susie Madrak the Suburban Guerrilla), I did learn that hurricanes can have an impact on oil production (Susie links to this New York Times article):

In an interview later with CNN, the mayor also referred to the potential impact the hurricane could have on the oil supply from the vulnerable area.

“The real issue—that I don’t think the nation is paying attention to—is that through the city of New Orleans, through the Gulf of Mexico, we probably deal with almost a third of the nation’s domestic oil that is produced. And that will most likely be shut down,” Mr. Nagin said.

“So, this can have a significant impact on oil prices going forward,” he added.

This, children, is what’s known as the Oil Circle of Life: the fossil fuel goes into your tank, the exhaust goes up into the air, the air swirls around and around until it reaches speeds of 150 mph, it hits the Gulf Coast, and then it gives the country’s gas and oil production a kick in the shins.  This then increases oil-company profits, and the fossil fuel goes into your tank, and . . . well, it’s just like the Water Cycle, only oilier.

In the meantime, this blog sends its best wishes to everyone in the Gulf Coast, particularly the people who don’t own cars and can’t evacuate at will.

Posted by Michael on 08/29 at 01:43 PM
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