Recently, my wife decided that she needed a new vehicle. And not just any new vehicle: she decided that with two kids it was time for something other than a sedan. So, at the beginning of the new year, it was minivan or SUV or bust. And none of this made either of us too happy.
Anyone who has read much of this blog has witnessed my brother or I mention cars–the Ford LTD station-wagon or Tempo, my lovely Buick LeSabre, the hellbeast Chevy Caprice and stereotypical blue Toyota Prius, for me and my brother’s love/hate for his Impala and irrational exuberance for his Subaru. Like many Americans, we have led lives that make cars necessary and whose necessities are translated into a commercialized communication of class and value. To say that we weigh down cars with overdetermined meaning would be an understatement. In our lives growing up, a person’s car was an immediate snapshot of their entire person.
Again, then, it would be an understatement to say that car buying is hard for me before I even leave the house. Not only do I worry what the car I drive communicates to absolute strangers, but I get almost dyspeptic with anxiety about the implied if unspoken judgments from friends and family. To say that my wife and my current relative financial stability (if not good fortune) makes me uncomfortable is merely to restate the definition of the word. And, of course, my wife’s feelings about cars are completely the opposite.
Add in to this mix the horrors of car dealerships, model varieties and salespeople and you’ve got a potentially toxic year-destroying brew. So my wife and I negotiated: no more then three weekends. No more than five test-drives. We individually read ratings, compared lists, enlisted the help of a car-fanatic friend and quickly decided against the middle-aged surrender of a minivan. My wife’s car–a Honda Civic hybrid, possibly the worst car Honda ever made–left her desiring something better, both mechanically and aesthetically.
She bought an SUV. And a nice one. It is not a vehicle I can drive comfortably–given my deep-seated class issues–but the first time I drove it alone with the kids and got to test the sound system for real (my wife likes he music too soft for my taste) I fell in love with the Bose speakers. This car has beautiful sound. As with many new cars, it came equipped with XM Radio. I flipped the dial and heard the song “Marathon” by Tennis:
This had to be one of those moments of obscene serendipity. It was a Saturday morning, we were all mellow, and the sun was blazing in the way that the winter sun will. The chill in the air felt a little less sharp with the background of this piece, a solo-performance built on a classic 50s/60s doo-wop progression with some surf-rock licks. The some doesn’t grow quickly, but it lingers and fills the space until it ends and it feels strange that it is gone. The ethereal vocals were a bright and nice complement to the brittle sun and suddenly everything just felt, well, right.
The lyrics of the first verse are about surprise and foreboding:
Is a very small cove
separated from the sea
by a shifting shore
we didn’t realize that
we had arrived
at high tide, high tide
barely made it out alive
When I read them now it seems obvious that the tension between the anodyne simplicity of the music and the menace of the lyrics should unsettle me–but the fact is that it doesn’t. I am used to tension; I am accustomed to paradox; and I have no problem with the compromises and inconsistencies that over time make us all hypocritical versions of our earlier selves.
I don’t know if I will love my wife’s car but it doesn’t matter. Life–in all of its tension and insistence–has been good to us of late. I’ll just be happy with the music that comes on the radio when these speakers sound so damn good.