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It’s at once exhilarating and terrifying.  My kids “know” Elmo.  I don’t mean we’ve been to Sesame Place (we haven’t) or that they watch Sesame Street (they don’t) or that they have three thousand Elmo-emblazoned toys at home (they haven’t).  I mean, they’re at the age where they’re pointing out all the Elmos in the world.  And that furry red monster is a sneaky bastard, lemme tell ya.  Dude is everywhere.  Sure there’s clothes, toys, and games.  Elmo has moved beyond the Tickle Me stage, and has matured into Big Hugs, Forever Friends, Lullaby & Good Night, Steps to School, Guitar Elmo, Potty Time Elmo, Counting, Trains, Soccer, K’nex, Memory, LeapFrog, and, the most disturbing evolution yet of the Tickle Me Elmo, “LOL Elmo”.  In addition to fruit snacks and applesauce with the tempting red furry mug on them, Elmo is now peddling a variety of Earth’s Best organic foods, including crackers, cookies, canned pasta in sauce, frozen waffles, instant oatmeal, squeeze-pouch smoothies, and frozen entrees.

Unlike the happy meal or cereal box that comes with a prize (do they still do that? Or is an iTunes download more enticing?), these products have little to do with the character on them.  Maybe the crackers are shaped like Elmo’s head, but the oatmeal is just oatmeal.  They are simply branded to build loyalty, character recognition, and ring up sales.  My friend who is an expert in mass media is nodding vigorously right about now, and it’s no shocker.  Kids’ characters promote products to families with kids.

PhD please.

My children are just now entering the word-combining phase of their speech development.  We are collecting their gems such as “Mama poop” (a comment) “No, doggy!” (a condemnation)“Mama, off shirt” (a command) and “More oatmeal” (a request).  One of the things that fascinated me as they learned their first words were the semantic features they would use to differentiate between words.  “Cracker” was an early word, and it encompasses all small, crunchy hand-held foods, such as Chex, Cheerios, Ritz, yogurt melts, freeze-dried strawberries and Gerber puffs. My son uses his name to apply to all babies, in person or in pictures.  The children may understand many differentiations for footwear, but only a binary distinction is required expressively.  There are “choos”, and there are “cocks”.  And when they want their Crocs, you’ll know, as they shriek and point “COCK” at the top of their  lungs.  (and don’t ask me about how they pronounce “fork” and “shirt”).  Beyond the thrilling worlds of clothing and food, they’re learning about their environment and the people/animals in it.  Children’s authors receive a dictum that approximately 70% of books must contain farm animals.  I think the library associations are subliminally preparing our children for an agrarian lifestyle.  They’re also learning about furniture, everyday objects, and those big grown-up strollers: cars.  No shocker that “car” was one of their first words, and that “mama car” and “dada car” were two of the earliest two-word phrases.  Taking them shopping was a veritable sensory overload in the parking lot, trying to label and point to all the cars individually.  (There’s a car!  There’s another car! A car!  Look, a car!  Omigosh, another one!  Car over there! Here’s a car!”)

So it follows that I wasn’t the least bit surprised that they were identifying Abby Cadabby and Elmo as we ventured out into the world.  Mind, they’ve never seen the television tuned to any children’s programming.  We have books with these characters, and they occasionally have seen them on their box of crackers or in a Babies ‘R Us circular.  Taking them through Target or the grocery store is getting dangerous.  They’re liable to point out every Abby and Elmo in sight.  And of course, I get excited and proud when they recognize a familiar character or object.  Yes, my sweet little geniuses, that is a dog walking in our neighborhood!  That is an avocado just like we eat at home! But just as I can’t buy every avocado in the supermarket, I’m not going to bring home every Disney Cars toy either.

Planning their birthday party last year – I should say overplanning­ — I was lost for a “theme”.  Diving into the depths of Pinterest I saw all manner of one-year-old themes, from Eric Carle, to Dr. Seuss, to “You are my Sunshine”, to Mickey Mouse, to trucks.  I know the party is for the parents, to celebrate having survived the hardest year of their lives, have kept the defenseless slug-like child alive long enough to actually enjoy it, but I was perplexed by the themes.  Visits to the overachieving parents’ blogs would reveal, “Little Bisquick is so into The Very Hungry Caterpillar, we carved a butter sculpture with naturally-derived dyes in the shape of a chrysalis”.  Or “Rubella is so into Cookie Monster we turned the house into a Sesame Street backdrop for photo ops”. I wondered if there was something wrong with my kids that they hadn’t expressed preferences yet.  Should they be “into” princesses or hippos or farm equipment by now?  Sure there are books we read over and over and over again until we know them from memory, but my kids’ demanding to hear “Moo Baa Lalala” for the 47th time doesn’t make me want to run out and buy all the Sandra Boynton paper plates and napkins in the world.  I know they need repetition to learn language and concepts.  That’s why Blue’s Clues airs the same show five days a week.  It’s not so parents want to drive ice picks through their ears; kids actually learn that way.  (Learning from television itself, now that’s a separate story)

Once they started pointing out all the Elmos in the world, they also started pointing out more mundane things.  Cars, for one, but also doors.  My kids love to knock on doors, especially if their parents are behind said doors, trying to use the bathroom.  (I may have taught them this game, but I may have been influenced by a college roommate. I’m not naming names.  It’s funny if you’re 1 or 21, that’s all I’m saying.) So when we go to the children’s museum, they get excited by seeing the plastic bananas in the supermarket, riding the boat in the fairytale-themed exhibit, and knocking on the doors to the maintenance rooms.  Are they “into” doors?  Are they “into” bananas?

No, because outside of the sexy world of energy efficiency, Pella hasn’t figured out how to make doors fun and exciting to parents.  Chiquita hasn’t been working on cultivating the 3-and-under set to demand banana appliqués on their onesies.  There’s no commercial market place for unbranded products.  And no birthday theme packs, either.

I suppose that parents are so excited to see their kids recognize an object or character, that they project their own schema of interest, and that supplants the baby’s intent to just say, “Hey, mom, that’s a dog”.  Identifying the object (or pointing to every car in the parking lot) is the purpose of the interaction.  I know we want to support their growth, so we look for their interests.  We buy them all the Elmo drek, we fill their playrooms with vehicles and princess paraphernalia.  I think that gender roles and gender norms creep deviously into our minds and our parenting styles much more subtly than we think.  It’s not just the glittery pink Stride Rite shoes versus Star Wars action sneakers.  It’s also caregivers seeing a boy identify “car”, inferring that he’s into cars, and jumping on the boys-love-vehicles bandwagon.  They might ignore when their daughter does the same, or at least not praise it with as much overt enthusiasm.  You don’t have to explicitly tell a boy that dolls are for girls, but you might not perceive a boy as nurturing if you don’t recognize the times he pretends to feed his baby doll.

Have the marketers and ad agencies figured this out, too?  You betcha.  Put a character on a box of cereal or a carton of ice cream, and the kid will identify it, which the parent will interpret as “want”.  Even better, put it on a healthy, natural product (Princess carrots.  Have you seen these?), and the parent will coalesce the kid’s “interest” with their own desire to choose nutritious foods.  Once the kid does get old enough that the “interest” has been nurtured and funded, it’s only a matter of time until you overhear, “Mommy, I want Dora ice cream” and “But I NEED the Thomas backpack!”

That Dora cake at her first birthday?  That was all for you.  That carton of purple ice cream (or, technically, “frozen dairy dessert”) when she’s 5?  That’s to get you out of ACME without a major meltdown.

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Every time I see a Kia Soul on the road, I think of hamsters.  I wait for the car to round the corner, craning my neck for a glimpse of the driver and passengers, because I clearly expect to see a furry rodent at the wheel.  This is either a colossal success in advertising, or a full-out failure.  I understand the point of the commercial — stand out, move beyond your boring “hamster wheel” of a Cobalt, or a Civic.  Instead of just spinning your (hamster) wheel, burn some rubber.  Well, that last point is a bit ambitious, given the 122 horsepower, but I understand their mission.  Stand out, with your weird ! and + trim lines.  Set yourself apart with “alien” colored body paint.  Define yourself with a houndstooth interior.  Express your angst with a USB jack hooked up to a raging iPod. 

I understand all this, but I didn’t think of originality when I saw the Soul turn a corner out of the school’s parking lot this afternoon;  I thought of hamsters.  When I think of hamsters, my stream of consciousness goes thusly — Habitrail plastic tunnels, Zhu Zhu pets, mice, mouse poop, snap traps — and then all the nightmares of that year we spent living among the filth and stench of being infested by mice.  The year we spent throwing out ruined clothing, checking traps every time we came home, falling asleep listening to skittering little feet, and drowning mice in Finley’s water bowl. 

I’d rather drive my Honda Fit, which,  for its meager 117 hp, at least manages 39 mpg highway, to the Soul’s 31 mpg, and doesn’t ever remind me of hamsters or mouse poop.  How many car companies can make that claim?

As Mr. Apron just astutely observed, while checking his blog statistics, “People are not at home reading blogs today.”

No, siree, they are not.  In addition to shopping for huge amounts of meat and baby clothing at the outlet stores, they’re also out shopping for cars.  We went car-driving today, too.  I have been lusting after a Honda Fit (for non-US readers, Jazz) since they arrived on these shores in late 2006 (2007 model year).  Mr. Apron even went so far as to buy me a promise ring. The summer before we were engaged, he bought me a claddaugh ring with a tiny emerald in it — a promise ring.  This time, he bought me a different sort of ring — a keyring with the Fit logo emblazoned on it.  And so it went, throughout grad school.  I kept myself motivated, fooling myself into thinking that upon graduation, I’d land a job immediately, and go buy a Fit.  Wrong.  I got the job, but we bought a house instead.  So the car plans went on the back burner.  That, and I have an allergy to both large furniture (entertainment centers and wardrobes, chiefly) and having 2 car payments at the same time.  As my current 2001 P.T. Loser is paid off and runs great, and we’re still paying Mr. Apron’s Ford Focus, we sit for a while and wait for 1) his car to be paid off (April 2011!), or 2) my car to die.  While I’d rather the former, the latter would certainly give us a sense of necessity, as we agree it’s just not a priority right now.

But Mr. Apron gets bugs up his butt, spends hours on ebay motors, and becomes obsessed with a car or an idea (usually about selling, trading in, or unloading one of our cars).  This week it’s been the Fit.  Actually it’s pretty selfless of him.  He could instead have focused on his “next car” or some far off insane dream — the recurring one is a vintage 1967 VW Beetle — but this weekend it was my turn. 

I have an issue with car dealers.  I have never been present at the purchase of a car.  We usually only prowl the lots to drool on new cars after hours so the sleazy sweaty men can’t hassle us.  The last time we ventured on a lot during business hours was when we were looking for a Civic Si (back when they were cute performance hatchbacks).  Of course, they stopped making them, shoved us in a regular Civic to test-drive, and then proceeded to send me weekly nagging letters in the mail for the next two months.  We weren’t in the market to buy; I just wanted to look and to test-drive it. 

See, I have specific needs, as outlined in the P.T. Loser post.  I needed to know if this Fit would fit, or if it would have the same issues with ratcheting seatbelts and pedals I can’t reach.  So I need to more than looking at it, more than sitting in it on the lot; I needed to drive it, or just let the dream go here and now.  So Mr. Apron began his campaign to get me into a Fit. 

1)  First we thought about the neighbor down the block who drives a red Fit, but it’s a stick.  I can technically drive a stick, but it’s a highly unenjoyable experience for me and my passengers, and you just can’t ask new neighbors to let you drive their car with the preface, “Yeah I can drive a stick, but I haven’t in 5 years because I really suck at it.  Can I drive your car now?”  So that didn’t work. 

2) Mr. Apron’s voicemail one day was infused with brilliance.  He’d thought of the perfect way to let me drive a Fit.  We’d join Philly Car Share, which has a fleet of Priuses (Prii?) and, among other cars, Fits.  I immediately set to work researching.  There’s a monthly or yearly fee, plus you have to go to an orientation.  Then you have to reserve it and pay the daily or hourly fee.  And the nearest Fit is parked back near our old neighborhood.  See, ‘cuz it’s Philly  Car Share, not Suburban Main Line We All Have Cars Anyway Share.  So that went to the chopping block.

3) Finally, we resigned ourselves to going to a dealer.  I tried to subdue my inherent defensiveness I feel whenever approached by a slimey salesman, we parked far away so they coudn’t judge us by our “trade-in” and Mr. Apron told me he’d take care of the talking lying. 

As it turned out, we were on the lot for a record amount of time before being approached.  The salesmen were so busy no one bothered us at all.  On an ordinary day of just drooling, that would have been fine, but we needed to drive today, and the sleaze-Os hold the keys.  We ventured inside, looked at all the brochurage, judged all the other customers, and lazily looked at the new Civics and Accords.  Finally.   “Are you being helped?”  No, not yet. 

John tried only once to upsell us, to distract us from our mission.  When I asked if the new Fits had a height-adjustable seat (knowing the old ones did not), he said the ’09s did not, but that the Civics did, would we like to see one?  Ah, no.  Nice try. When we turned down that easy segue, I think he got the picture.  We had a goal.  He showed us the pretty blue Fit flecked with May’s productive pollen.  This was a barebones model.  No armrest, no navigation system, no bun warmers.  But it had a CD player, ABS, and 6 + airbags.  Good enough.  The seating is not ideal.  If I’m close enough to reach the pedals, I either get wedged in the seat by the steering wheel, or I bang my knee on the overhanging accessory buttons on the left side of the dashboard.  (done, and done)  Still, the seat ranked high on the comfort level,  low-end acceleration was great, the aerodynamics meant the open windows delivered plenty of fresh air, and there was even a distracting digital graphic reflecting fuel economy, just like my 1987 Cadillac had!  How far we have come. 

No, I didn’t come home with one today, but it was still a success of sorts.  No one pressured us.  No one has us on a mailing list (my license that he photocoped still has out old address on it, so even if they harrass us the way the other dealership did, it’ll go to our old apartment!).  No one tried to low-ball our trade-in or calculate monthly payments.  They just let us drive the car.  John didn’t even come with us!  He let us go by ourselves.  Maybe this is because the backseat was covered in plastic.  Maybe he’s hiding the fact that it doesn’t humanely seat a full-sized adult male.  But maybe he just realized we were no fools.  We weren’t the types he could get into a Pilot or even make a sale on a Fit today.  And besides.  If we’d made off with their little car, the cops would have been all over our asses.  And then you’d see a different picture below — my booking mug:

Test-driving the 2009 Honda Fit

Test-driving the 2009 Honda Fit

My car is an Inferno Red ™ PT Cruiser Limited, one of the first off the lot in 2001.  I’ve had it since it was almost new (my mother having driven it before me), and I’ve driven most of the 73,000 miles on the odometer.  So why, after 8 years of ownership, 7 years of steady driving, has it suddenly become so very uncomfortable to drive?  It’s gotten to the point that Mr. Apron and I switched cars back in the fall, and I haven’t looked back.  Until today.  He had the other car (a sedate, boring, black Ford Focus) to check my paranoia about the brakes, and I took Clementine back for the day.  We’re a lucky two-car family in that way.  Mr. Apron takes whatever car in for an oil change and walks to work, while I take the other car.  Clementine and I did not have  pleasant reunion. 

The driving position is very upright, a fact Mr. Apron enjoys, but which creates problems for me.  I prefer a more slung-back racing position, not so low as the gangstas giving themselves chronic neck issues, but low enough that I can actually touch my heel to the floor of the car.  I can technically do this in the cruiser, but with the pedals dangling in mid-air, I cannot simultaneously keep the heel of my size 7’s on the floormat and my toe on the pedal to operate either the brake or the gas, unless I’m wearing 3 inch platforms.  Thank goodness there’s not a clutch to add to this equation.  All of which leads to discomfort.  In my hamstring.  It’s similar to that feeling skiiers get when they’re on a super long hi-speed chair lift which suddenly stops in mid air.  Those dangling legs, weighted down with 170 cms (well, 150cm in my case) of fiberglass, chunky boots, and everyone knows those footrests are just for show, especially when you’re sharing a lift with weird foreigners who monopolize the rests or don’t know about American safety conventions like lowering the dear-God-keep-me-in-this-lift bar.  In my case, only the weight of my leg is dangling, but I’m using force to stop my car when the whack-job in the “oy  ta” has no brake lights and I have to stop short, or when I’m gunning poor, underpowered Clementine to please, please accelerate so I don’t get squished by the tractor-trailer.  It has the same effect.  So, what?  Now I have to do stretches to prepare my hamstrings for driving?

Compound the throbbing leg muscles with the seatbelt issues and my ever-lengthening commute, and you’ve got a recipe for a roadside show, if you’re lucky enough to pass me on the road.  Here’s what you’ll see: constant pulling, tugging, adjusting of the seatbelt.  The ratcheting effect (self-tightening, whatever you call it) might be useful for stopping my body from flying out of the car in an accident, but in normal driving, its constant tightening pushes, squishes, constricts around my belly to no end.  I keep thinking of the airline safety announcement that your seatbelt is supposed to lie “flat across your hips and lap”.  Well, airline belts don’t ratchet.  Car seatbelts do, and they end up around my belly every single time, no matter how much I shove them down.  It’s no wonder my poor sister ended up with a seatbelt injury to her small intestine when she was in a car accident last summer; they just don’t stay where they’re supposed to.  So I do something bad.  Not so bad as not wearing the belt, or shoving the shoulderbelt behind my seat, like I did as a child, but still bad.  I take out enough slack on the seatbelt to restrain the average American, and wrap the extra around the armrest, thus abating the racheting somewhat.  But then, of course, with the belt hitting a different and higher vertex (it’s the right word; leave me alone), the hypotenuse of the shoulder belt (I tutor geometry; get used to it) has a higher slope, and, instead of gliding over my shoulder, as it should, is now slicing into my neck.  Even with the adjustable belt thingy on the B-pillar (DH is car nerd).  This thing that is supposed to keep me safe is going to a) decapitate me and/or b) slice up my belly in case of accident, God forbid. 

And the commute.  New traffic “patterens”, the signs warn, as they close down 1/3 lanes on a major artery around here.  My superiors, whom I am nudging for a transfer to a closer center, keep insisting I travel “against traffic flow”, since I head out of the city in the morning, and towards the city in the afternoon.  Let me tell you, fighting my way up or down that stupid road with construction with no end in sight in any time of day, is never against traffic.  Mornings are about 45 minutes; afternoons can be an hour or more, depending on weather, stupid pedestrians who try to cross an expressway against the light, broken-down cars, firefighters/Penn State co-eds collecting money/offering car washes at red lights, or sun glare delays.  My estimated commute to the other center: 25 minutes, morning or afternoon.  That drive, which, ironically, is into the city in the morning, and back to the suburbs in the afternoon, has no traffic because I can use back roads.  My current drive, spanning several neighborhoods, an interstate, and a river, cannot be done with backroads unless I want to double my commute.  Again. 

And all of this in a car which has somehow turned on me.  Poor, poor Clementine.  I cheat on you.  I drive a boring car so I don’t have to feel pain when we’re together.  I lust after a Honda Fit, which must be more comfortable to drive.  What have you ever done to deserve this, except for the month where you got 3 flat tires?  I’m sorry.  We need to be apart again for a time.  I’m not in a good place for a relationship right now.  It’s not you; it’s me.  I’m just not that into you.