22 August 2010

Danger Mouse

When I was younger, I wanted to live a life of adventure and danger (though I did not actually want to be an Air Force Ranger, contrary to the lyrics). I wanted to swash, and I wanted to buckle. Climb mountains, swing from vines, leap tall buildings in a single bound--you name it. At some point in my twenties, something vital about my life crystallised for me one night as I navigated my 1967 VW squareback down the back roads towards an apartment I dearly cherished.

No, I did not lose control and plummet into the icy waters of the canal. I didn't even slide into a tree (try to remember that in a VW, the engine is the back, leaving nothing between you and what you are about to hit but two thin layers of steel and....well, a lot of air. Oh--and the gas tank. Can we say "design flaw"?) If memory serves me, I simply looked at the gas gauge.

A word or two here about the instrument panels of air-cooled Volkswagens. They are deceptively plain. The average Volkswagen comes with two lights: a green one, which means there is a problem with the oil pressure and you should turn off the car immediately--even before steering it to the side of the road out of traffic. Since there is no cooling fluid in a VW, the oil is the only thing your engine has going for it in terms of not turning into one solid block of molten, frictionless, basically useless metal. A green light means trouble. A green light says YIKES. OUCH. HELP. DANGER. I've been lucky enough through several years of Volkswagen ownership (including a '65 split-windscreen bus of notorious instability) to never actually have to test the green light strategy.

The other light on a VW's dash panel is the red light. Generally speaking, the red light means "Um, excuse me, I don't mean to interrupt you, but there's something slightly amiss here." It doesn't really get more specific than that. It could mean you're not generating enough voltage. It could mean that somewhere in the spaghetti system of wiring, something is touching something else in an inappropriate manner. It could mean you've blown a fuse or six. It could also just mean your Volkswagen is bored and wants attention. The bus used to do that, going up the west side of mountains in Montana and Wyoming after dark. Any time I tried to push the speed above 45 mph, the light would come on. After several panicked stops to consult my Idiot Guide, I eventually discovered that when this happened nothing in particular was wrong with the bus. It was just its way of saying hello.

(This, incidentally, is why it takes a certain brand of crazy to own a pre-67 bus, and why my particular vehicle was christened the Kobiyashi Maru. Sometimes the only way to pass the test is to cheat. What is being judged here is simply your reaction to being doomed to failure. Mine was to buy a Honda.)

The gas gauge--which on the bus never worked at all, no matter how many times I repaired it--is in most other models not actually a gauge. It's more like a suggestion. Contrary to the manual, the "R" does not actually stand for raus, the German word for "empty." In actuality, it stands for "random." In the squareback, once the needle moved past 1/2, weird things began to happen. The needle would start to shimmy, fluctuating back and forth between R and 1/2 in ever widening arcs. Or, it wouldn't. It would sometimes sit at 1/2 for a good week before plummeting firmly to R. This was not the result of a faulty float in the gas tank. It was just what happened.

That night, chattering and tappeting my way south along the canal road, it occurred to me to wonder why I thought always being on the verge of running out of gas was an acceptable version of living on the edge. It wasn't that I had had to purchase a cell phone against my preference, because I was so likely to be stranded. It wasn't that many of my most frequent routes had limited cellular signal anyway because of a quirk known as geography. It wasn't even that, as a general rule, I carry my vagina with me while traveling and despite having been lucky so far it was only a matter of time until the person who stopped to render aid was a chain-saw wielding lunatic rapist who ate small children and microwaved kittens in his spare time. It was just that I was done living like this. The adventure was no longer fun. I wanted to get into a car and know I would eventually arrive at my destination. I wanted to be able to plan without adding three hours for unseen roadside activity involving my socket set. I wanted someone else to change my oil for a change.

Don't get me wrong. I still have the Volkswagen. During my disaster of a marriage, my husband frequently pressured me to sell it, arguing that we really needed the chunk of cash that was parked under a blue weatherproof cover in my parents' front yard, slowly oxidizing to itself. Even when I asked him by way of comparison why selling his motorcycle was never an option (knowing it was his parents' graduation gift to him when he finished culinary school and thus off-limits because of emotional attachment) he never quite got it. The last spring we were married we spent Easter weekend trying to get it back in running order, even if not driveable. It turned over happily, but even after hefty (and lung-clogging) doses of carb cleaner, it wouldn't stay running long enough to settle into its characteristic stuttering purr. But no matter. I still wasn't selling.

My husband ended up leaving me less than six weeks later. I guess his theory was, if you can't get it running in an afternoon, might as well pack up your tools and go look for another model. But not me. I know that someday, when I have the time, the money, and the emotional stability needed for such ventures, I'll clear off the square of Astroturf in the trunk hatch (don't ask), open the engine compartment, put on my striped Exxon work shirt that for reasons too convoluted to explain says JOEL on the pocket, lay out my tools, and begin a full resto. The difference next time is that I won't need it. Rather than being my daily driver, it will be my weekend excursion car. It will be fun. And by god the horn will work this time, whether or not I'm turning left.

But I will have another set of wheels, one chosen for practicality, reliability, sturdiness, and for god's sake its crash rating. I want this one to take me safely all the way home.

20 August 2010

Bats in the Belfry

Or, more accurately, the dining room.

Yes, lovely. There I was, minding my own business, doing some stealth knitting for someone who has no idea she's about to get a present, watching the Mets suck (as they are sadly wont to do this time of year), and.......flappityflappityflappityflap.....thunk....!

A bat. In my house.

Let me say that again, just so we're clear here.

A bat.

In. My. House.

Needless to say, the next thing that happened was I dropped a stitch. Meanwhile, cats came screeching in from every corner of the house to investigate this new, exciting, flying treat. Look! It's a mouse! But it flies! like! a! bird! Thereitgoes!

Of course, these things never happen when there's anyone around to deal with them properly, like, say, anyone with a Y chromosome and better hand-eye coordination (not to mention a longer arm-span), so.....yeah. I went upstairs and changed into jeans and running shoes, guessing that a bathrobe was inappropriate attire for what was about to occur. (Although now I'm looking at it, a bat-robe might not have been a bad choice, if only for punditry's sake. But I digress.)

Anyway, my first thought was to sequester the bat in the dining room and kitchen, and shoo it out through an open screen door. But that involved rounding up the kitties and shutting them away. And also wasn't working as I'd planned, since the door from the kitchen to the hallway apparently doesn't shut anymore. Which is good to know for future reference.

Then it occurred to me to wonder how (the hell) this fist-sized flying rodent with spiky little teeth and a voice more annoying than Ethel Merman got in, exactly. Turns out that it's fairly easy to breach the inside/outside barrier when someone doesn't firmly reattach the screen after painting the window moulding. Not mentioning any names of course, Dad.

Ahem. So. After a few rounds of bat-ball (base-bat? stick-bat? rodent-hockey with repeated high sticking penalties?) and one stern admonishment not to climb up my mother's sheer curtains if he knew what was good for him, we reached an impasse.

The bat did not want to be found.

I, truthfully, did not really want to find the bat. At least, not at close range in a dimly lit room with a lot of antique furniture--some of which is fairly wobbly and none of which is mine--and breakable objects. Not to mention a rabies vaccine that's probably no good after nine years. (side note: I used to work as a vet tech, so yes I have actually been vaccinated against rabies. The nurses all thought I was kidding when I walked in and said I was here for my rabies vaccine. The serum is fuchsia. The needle is longer than my index finger. It was good times.)

My next plan was to close the dining room doors tightly and let the bat show himself out. My friend Loosey suggested I tape a note to the door:

Bat in here.
Drunk in bed.
Do not disturb either.

This would be counterproductive, though. The cats already knew all of that, and besides which, their reading comprehension skills pretty much suck.