Home is what you do when you're alone

Kate and Piper and I were due to drive down to Pennsylvania on Saturday morning, but the fine German engineering of my Volkswagon GTI threw a small logistical wrench into the plans.

Much like I’m considering throwing a wrench into my car.

On Wednesday, I drove the car to the VW dealer for two free (free!) recall repairs – you know, the ones where they mail you a sheet that says, “We’re issuing a voluntary recall on part 3F01AQ, the interior light bulb off-current flow oscillator. Please drive your car very, very slowly to the dealer, never allowing your eyes to drift up to the dome light – WE SAID, DON’T LOOK AT IT – and then back away from the dealer, keeping your hands at your sides and speaking in hushed tones until you are at least one hundred feet from the vehicle. Why are we recalling this part? OH NO REASON. WE JUST MISSED YOU. KISSES, VW”

Anyhow, the recall said the repairs would be free, and since we’re thinking about selling or trading the car in, I figured demonstrating that we’d done the maintenance would be a good thing. I also asked them to do the (non-free) 100K miles maintenance.

Thursday afternoon, the dealer calls me to tell me they checked the coolant lines and found oil in it. “Damn you, BP!", I shouted, waving my fist towards Tony Hayward, but then the mechanic corrected me. The Deepwater Horizon oil gusher had (probably) not put oil into the coolant: some crack or leak in the oil cooler had. Parts and labor to replace the oil cooler: $711. For a car we’d like to sell off.

The math is sadly simple: Value of car with repair: ~$5000. (or $6K, if you believe the Kelly Blue Book, which I do not.) Value of car without repair = much, much less. So we do it.

The bummer is psychological. I can see pictures of oil spreading over the sandy beaches on the Gulf coast. I have no way of knowing whether the dealer actually found oil in my car’s lines. And it’s way too easy to imagine their incentives to do more work on my car: $711 doesn’t grow on trees. But if I can’t trust the dealers to tell me honestly whether something’s wrong or not, I suppose I shouldn’t take my car to them. It just rankles that I can’t easily do the “verify” part of “trust, but verify.”

With the car locked up in the drunk tank through the weekend, hauling down to Pennsylvania on the train with a return trip less than twenty four hours later began to feel like a drag, so I helped maneuver Kate and Piper down to Penn Station and onto NJ Transit, and I stayed home on Saturday.

What did I do? Surprisingly, the exact same things that I did on my ‘mental health days’ when I was a teenager. (I got sick vanishingly rarely, so my mom would periodically encourage a day home from school for no reason at all.)

Ate pretzels dipped in peanut butter. Despite having shelves of things in my “to-read” pile, read chapters of books I’ve read a million times before, instead: “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” “Dune.” Play video games. Talk with friends. Cook truly stupid combinations of too-old leftovers, feeling virtuous about reusing the congee, tofu sausages, beet greens and goat cheese, figuring the only person I’m endangering is myself.

Oh, and of course the awesome adult tasks that keep a household running: fighting other building residents for washing machines, balancing bank accounts, cleaning up cat barf, dressing the rolling dishwasher up as R2D2, staying up too late. Then Sunday, my work week began, as it does every Sunday.

When I’m in the midst of my regular life, picking hairballs off the floor and out of Piper’s mouth, I have very few contiguous blocks of time to do any kind of serious project work, like writing or researching or freelancing radio pieces … and I frequently think that’s what I would be doing if I had more time. Who knows? Maybe that’s exactly what I’d do after several days of this hardcore goofing off.

But this past weekend was all about the goofing, and I feel simultaneously guilty and relieved about it. My personal to-do list is just as long as it was, but the car and my wife and daughter all come home tomorrow, and that’s the best news of all.