How the Volkswagen Scandal Has Changed Me

ecobee3: Our supposedly energy-efficient new thermostat. I doubt it.
ecobee3: Our “energy-efficient” new thermostat. The app really sells it.

When we bought our 2010 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI, our fond hope was that we would have it for at least ten years. That’s one of the great things about diesel engines, Dave told me after much research. They can go forever. And a diesel that was also clean-burning? At last, technology and principles aligning! Then some stuff happened.

I brought home new coffee from the co-op. I cut open the top, hoping it would smell like Peet’s. It smelled good, but not as good as Peet’s.

“This smells good,” I said, shoving the bag at Dave and hoping he would say it smelled as good as Peet’s.

“Mm,” he nodded appreciatively. “But not as good as Peet’s.”

“Nothing smells as good as Peet’s,” I allowed, tossing the fair trade, people-supported, beautifully-designed packaging, perfectly good-smelling co-op coffee under the bus.

BUT THAT’S NOT HOW THE VOLKSWAGON SCANDAL HAS CHANGED ME. NO. IT’S WORSE.

“It’s a certain sweetness,” Dave mused.

“They all have it…” I added, looking for the right sweetness identifier.

“…But I can tell them all apart,” Dave clarified.

“Me too! I would totally know if I was drinking Major Dickasons versus Garuda,” I claimed, though secretly I wondered, would I?

NO, THAT’S NOT IT EITHER. IT’S DEEPER AND MORE INSIDIOUS.

“Each Peet’s blend is distinct, but they that all have that…” Dave paused.

“That…”

“That…”

“That…”

“…”

“…”

“… something,” he finished.

Yes.

It was a quiet, blissful moment that would have been otherwise unremarkable…

EXCEPT FOR WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.

“We need to either get to Peet’s or go back to the subscription service, though it feels too expensive,” was what I was about to say.

BUT SUDDENLY AN IMAGE CAME INTO MY HEAD.

At the Peet’s coffee factory, during the roasting process, workers pour the requisite amount of the synthetic extract “Peets No. 7” into the vat. This chemical cocktail was developed after much market research and consultation with a French aroma company operating out of a shell corporation in China. They’ve calculated exactly how much Peets No. 7 must be added to each batch to create the proprietary brand nose-feel experience while maximizing ROI. Too much and people will suspect foul play. Too little and they won’t find it compelling–they’ll abandon Peet’s for the stuff at the Co-op. Or Folgers. Or maybe Peet’s IS Folgers with Peet’s No. 7 added. HOW DEEP DOES THIS GO?

Old, pre-Volkswagen me would scoff.

Of course Peet’s is different, the coffee itself is better, Peet’s started in Oregon and everyone is pure there. They just wouldn’t DO that.

New, post-Volkswagen me isn’t even shocked.

I just nod dismissively, “Yeah, they probably would,” and pour the co-op coffee into the canister with the rest of the Peet’s because why bother.

Ditto Trader Joe’s “Gluten Free” Waffles, So-Delicious “Vegan” Ice Cream, Room and Board “Made in America” furniture, “eco” bee thermostats, all recycling…

That’s how.

Herding cats

Pandora interface
On the other hand, now I’m thinking I should give The Sopranos another try.

Sometimes I look at people who listen to vinyl and I’m jealous. I roll my eyes when they brag about the preciousness of the pops and the balancing of the needle and quality of the sound, but I’m jealous. They have a machine that does just one thing, plays records.

Meanwhile, a friend is worried about her dog, who has become very clingy and affectionate after ten years of mellow reserve. He’s eating blinds while she’s gone. He’s sleeping on her socks.

Django is also clingier, though not any more affectionate.
She won’t willingly walk unless both Dave and I go. If it’s only one of us, she keeps trying to turn back.
When we leave the house, she won’t go first. “But isn’t that what they taught us at obedience school, humans go first?” I ask Dave. “Maybe those classes finally paid off.”
“No,” says Dave. “she just wants to make sure we’re all going.”
She follows us around the house wearily, like, “We just got comfy in the office, why the hell are we going down the basement?”

What I can’t figure out is why, with music so much more easily accessible–
on my computer
on my phone,
through the stereo if AppleTV or my Remote app is currently letting me access my iTunes library, which is about 50 percent of the time, averaging out the times it lets me in at first try,
lets me in after I turn on sharing AGAIN,
lets me in after I go up and open iTunes or just remind iTunes that it is indeed open,
and the times it works for a while, then cuts out in the middle of a song like it suddenly remembers it had a roast in the oven,

–I don’t listen to music as much as I used to. These days, if I want to listen to music that sounds good, I generally just turn on Pandora through Roku, because:
it will play through the house speakers.
I can listen to the sort of music I’m in the mood for
(Americana Radio, Rain Dogs Radio, Blossom Dearie Radio)

…though not a specific song or album. If I want a specific musical experience, and the song or album happens to be
in the subset of my iTunes library that’s currently on my phone
or
findable with a Web search that usually turns up at least a YouTube version
I’ll generally just play it there,
turning up the volume and reminding myself that it sounds not that bad for a phone speaker.

Maybe I could solve this with Spotify, which I would then connect to on the Roku, and thereby have infinite choice of artist or album or genre, which would be great, but it would also mean:
the screen of the TV has to be on so I can choose things
(and everyone knows the TV screen sends out hypnotic watch-me rays that fundamentally conflict with the auditory omnipresence of good audio)
and
the sheer abundance of choice at any given moment would result in buffet blindness
–which happens when I go out for brunch and end up with ketchup on my cantaloupe because I put too much stuff on my plate because it was all free, free! for the cost of brunch, so I don’t even know what I’m eating and the omelet is cold–
and
I’d be paying for a service instead of buying albums, so any fantastic music I discovered would become inaccessible as soon as I stopped paying for it.
(What was that band singer song called again? Oh, never mind.)

I thought I was alone in my vague sense of musical dissatisfaction until yesterday, when Dave said, “I miss music.” Then in the car with friends we were group-grocery shopping with because of the coming snow, Sam piped up from the backseat, “Me too! I used to listen to music all the time. And now…”

So now we’re looking at the way media is configured in our home and trying to figure out how to change it without:

  • sacrificing all the things that are great about remote access to music
  • buying another component
  • spending $2000 at Room and Board

Django doesn’t care about music, or cuddling, or laundry. She doesn’t nestle with my dirty socks. She just stands at the top of the basement stairs, waiting for me to finish folding clothes so she can get back to a room with a dog bed in it.

Could everything stop being a metaphor for just five minutes?

deflated snowmen
Exhibit 13-B.

Exhibit A. Clamshell packaging on cheap electronics.

Exhibit B. Filling the humidifier while it’s raining outside.

Exhibit C. Traffic on Elston.

Exhibit D. A messy house.

Exhibit F. The empty laundry basket that’s been sitting in the same spot for a week.

Exhibit I. The sky, right at this moment.

Exhibit K. That piece of fuzz on the blind. Its weightlessness. Its replicating powers. Its almost-lack of color or form. Its polite insistence. Its network of friends.

Exhibit Z. That dream last night. Specifically, the part with the ladder.

Exhibit 13-B. Inflatable snowmen, deflated.

Exhibit 7. Snowmen.

Diary of a jib

It’s like I’m not even here.

Today They brought me to a house. I won’t say He. To me, He no longer counts as a He. He—that is, They—carried my parts as if I were so much equipment. Throughout my assemblage, They blabbed to the AD. Nothing about how easily I went together, just silly chatter about the weather (“So much rain!”) and the neighborhood (“What do they call this area?”) and the AD’s vertigo (“No kidding?”). I’m sure the universe is the wiser, thanks to those insights.

I held myself apart, daring Him – I mean, Them – to fit my base into the spider dolly, defying the twist of the lug bolt. Not long ago, at times like this, all the chatter would be of me. Of the gift of my perfect balance after all those years with What’s-it’s-name. The gift of my compactness – you’d never guess, when you saw me in pieces, that I could span 20 feet. The gift of me. Now those days are deader than an XL1.

When I was fully formed, They left, trailing his witty repartee like a docked tail. “See ya.” I spent the evening alone. A spotted dog appeared briefly. It stepped over my feet to get to a bed tucked in the corner. Surely I’m the tallest, widest span of metal and steel ever to grace the inside of this shack, but the dog gave not a backward glance.

Two theys came in and sat on the couch. They watched an episode of Friday Night Lights, which doesn’t even use one of me. Yawn. One they left and the other read by a dim light. It’s very strange, the lights they use for living.

I will try to rest, and hope tomorrow will be better. Not to expect, for I’ve learned something about expectations in these last few months. But hope, surely, is free to anyone fool enough – and long enough – to reach for it.

Attachment reorder

bag of carpet samples
It’s not you, it’s me.

I get too attached. I’m not the exact opposite of a savvy consumer who does their research and makes an informed decision, but I’m maybe 45 degrees off. Poor Dave, when he recommended getting multiple bids for each bit of the kitchen job. All three HVAC guys? I loved them–-the super-nice one, the initially gruff one, and the one with the sketchy brother.

And the painters? Zen painter was absolutely my top choice, until I met cheap painter, who was clearly the way to go. I couldn’t imagine not hiring him until musician painter brought his dog and could start on Monday.

I won’t tell you about the floor sanders or the drywallers or the lovely tile ladies in two states or the many countertop people I’ve felt fully committed to, each in succession. I do try to stay neutral. I do want to save money and get value for the dollar. But every time I choose one product or service over another, I feel like I’m breaking an unspoken pact. All my detailed discussions with the unchosen contenders, all their good ideas, all the things I half-learned about their families, their lives, their dogs and assumed I’d learn the rest of when they came back to do the job, where do they go? I know that coming out and doing quotes is part of the job and I don’t owe them any more than my careful consideration. But still, I’m 45 degrees off.

For the stair runner, I was going to handle it differently. I’d worked with Company A when we lived in the condo and they were super nice, super affordable, super super. So instead of getting all tangled up with multiple quotes, I’d just use them and be done with it. I’d already been warned that stair runners are expensive, so as a savvy consumer I’d look at a range of samples and get an idea beforehand of the cost.

But something weird happened. I called and talked to a very nice person with whom I ended up having an extremely cordial email relationship, but all the while we kept misunderstanding each other. I heard myself asking for a rough estimate of how much a stair runner might cost, “13 treads, three winders, and two small landings,” I added helpfully. But what she heard was, “Please open a new account with some outrageously expensive stair runner provider so that you can bring me only four samples from their line and no others. And please don’t bore me with an estimate.”

I assumed the guy coming out was a sales rep who would bring lots of samples, like they did when we lived in the condo. The guy who came was not a sales rep, he was a stair runner installation master. He was so genuine and patient, he must have spent a half hour just measuring. He taught us all about how stair runners are measured, cut, and sewn together by hand. There for was no reason for him not to leave two of the four long-awaited samples, just so we could make sure we wanted the red over the eggplant. Even Dave got to meet him, and said the guy was clearly an artist.

I was prepared for a high quote, and when it came in I tried to convince Dave it was about what I’d expected. It was double that. But I couldn’t bear the thought of calling someone else in, because what if they gave a lower quote and then I had to call the first place and say No, thanks? Against my will, but also not wanting to spend six thousand dollars, I yelped around and found Company B. Over the phone, I demanded a ballpark estimate on 13 treads, three winders, and two landings, and found out it was half the first quote. Crap. Alright, come on out, but don’t try to make friends. I’m done connecting with salespeople or masters or anyone I may end up not hiring.

So out came Company B, with a million samples. To everything he showed us I barked, “What do you have that’s cheaper?” When he tried to explain his company philosophy or offer useful tidbits about carpet installation, I interrupted, “What do you have in a green?” and “Is that hundred percent wool?” There’s no way I wanted to learn anything about this guy other than how many samples he could fit in his truck.

Then he showed us one we both fell in love with, and gave us a price that was only a little more than I’d originally planned on. Deal.

What about Company A’s samples?

I’ll email my friend and break up cordially. Or not cordially. It doesn’t matter. I’m done with relationships, remember?

So we’ve got the installation set up and the guy’s about to leave, and I’m congratulating myself on my recalibrated consumer savvy, when my guard goes down and we end up talking about real stuff, and the guy tells us a story so good there’s no way I couldn’t hire him even if I hadn’t already hired him.

Ten or 15 years ago, he went to quote a job. “And you now how it goes, we got to talking, and I find out the guy’s a songwriter. ‘Yeah?’ I tell him, ‘I got some song lyrics for ya.’” For some reason, for the past few weeks, some lines of poetry had been rolling around in his head. “Which is weird ’cause I’m not a writer or anything. But they just kept running through my head.” He recited them for us, and said he’d recited them to the musician, who wrote them down. Then he moved on to his next quote and forgot about it.

Nine years later, he heard his lines again, on the radio, in a popular song. The timing was uncanny, because he was having a tough year, and the song seemed to sum it up or make sense of it or something. I wasn’t sure because I didn’t recognize the song, but anyway, it was significant.

He told his girlfriend, whom he hadn’t known back then, all about it, and they decided to go see the songwriter who was coming to town for a concert. “I told her we didn’t need to get good seats, because once he heard from me he’d probably be sending backstage passes,” he said. “I found his email address online and told him who I was. I said I didn’t want anything from him or anything. I gave him those lines and they were his. But I was kinda blown away, hearing them. I thought it would be great to meet up and just hear about his process. How the lines turned into a song.”

“Did he write you back?”

“It was a form letter email, and it said he couldn’t respond to individual messages.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. I just couldn’t believe it. He seemed like such a nice guy.”

“I’m sure he never even saw the message,” I said.

“Really?”

“Yeah, I bet the address goes right to his manager or an assistant or something. If he was that nice, he wouldn’t have been able to read that and not respond.”

When he left, I held myself back from hugging him, but it wasn’t easy. Then I emailed the very nice woman at Company A. She emailed back with utmost cordiality. Someone is going to come by and pick up the red and the eggplant samples. I hate that they’re wasting another trip, but she said not to worry about it. I love her.

If I’m not here I need to leave them on the porch wrapped in a plastic bag. I’m pretty sure that whether I’m here or not I won’t answer the door. I don’t want to end up with two stair runners when I only have one flight of stairs.

Home

dog sleeping under quilt
The place you call the place if you call places places.

Django is lying at the foot of the bed, wrapped in the vintage quilt I bought on vacation. I think it’s called a Grandmother’s Flower Garden, though that seemed to be what they all were called. I’ve been lying awake, thinking about the sink we bought and how even if you’re lucky enough to get to custom-order your sink cabinet it can still end up being too narrow for the only sink shallow enough to fit back to front. And how even if we return this sink and find a place to custom-make a sink, there could well be another way in which it won’t fit quite right. This is why people hire kitchen designers.

Re-entry from Michigan was slightly softened tonight by running into friends on the dog walk and getting ourselves invited over for dinner. Django was still hopped up from her vacation, so she was exceptionally bossy. There are eight or nine border collies at the herding farm where she stays when we go away, so I imagine her the visiting omega, sullenly following orders from even the two-year-old who made her herding debut over the weekend, and dreaming of all the alpha moves she’ll use on the clueless neighbor dogs when she gets home.

When we picked her up yesterday, she ran in circles, ducking in to get petted but not able to stand being touched, so squirming off again. We were trying to talk to Shannon about how the week went and how her herding demos went, but Django kept circling and not-exactly-barking, more articulated whining that changes itself into a yawn and back. She’d circle and whine-yawn, then run partway to the car, doors standing open, and then run back and start again.

Finally I stamped my foot and said, “Just get in the car,” and it was like that’s all she’d been waiting for, though I’d never said it to her before. She raced down the long, winding drive and jumped into the driver’s seat, where she sat calmly until we finished talking, paid Shannon, hugged goodbye, gave her dogs a final pat, and set the food in the trunk and the dog bed in the back seat. Then she climbed into her bed and lay down.

I wonder what dogs think when we put them in the car, and then let them out in a different location. Do they think, “First I was there, and now I’m here,” or do they think, “Sitting, sitting, sniffing window, sitting,” or perhaps “I wonder what humans think when they see beautiful flowers and don’t pee on them?”

I need to get some sleep, but my mind won’t stop thinking about the sink. I finished my book yesterday and I don’t have another one within reach. The bookmark lies on my nightstand, homeless. It’s from a friend’s mom’s memorial service. The mom had volunteered at a library and loved books, so the family had laminated bookmarks made with her name and dates and the Irish blessing. The first date is “Born” and the second one is “Went home.” Born. Born into time. Died. Passed on. Went home. Born into eternity. All our words to assert different positions on the meaning of the first date and the second.

Our neighbor who made us dinner was talking about how lately she’s begun longing for the town where she grew up. She left when she was 11 and has lived many other places since, but it’s the place she thinks of as home. She wonders if it’s the physical place, which has almost none of the features she looks for in a place to live (except great weather), or the people, none of whom she would necessarily want to live next door to, or something else that makes it feel in her mind like home. She hasn’t even visited, and doesn’t have plans to.

I get the feeling she’s afraid to go back, because she doesn’t want to be disappointed. It’s like a reverse kind of faith, where you preserve your sense of home by avoiding direct contact. Unless of course you think of faith in the opposite way, in which case your sense of home is all the contact you need.

That Rosanna lady was not wrong

string of lights
Gatsby could totally relate.

It amazes me to look at the list of things I wanted to accomplish yesterday and see from here that they’re all accomplished, but now there’s another list, just as long. Yesterday I did the shopping and hung the shade and did some cleaning and mowed the lawn and hacked the grape leaves and put out the tables and strung the lights. Whew.

The lights are beautiful and old fashioned-looking, even though they’re from Target. Target’s good at satisfying my nostalgia cravings at a reasonable price. Not that I grew up with anything that looked like these lights, but they’re something I picture having grown up with. The problem is, they’re real glass, so they’re breakable. You know, how things used to be.

I got my ladder and a drill and some hooks, and hung them high on the house, stringing them over to the cherry tree. As I was weaving a strand through a branch, one loose bulb fell out and shattered on the cement. Dave heard it from up in his office and came to the window. “Ow,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “I didn’t think about how they’re glass.”

“Hm,” he said. Suddenly the lights went from twinkling globes of Gatsby-style ambiance to coiled-up dagger balls of death. What was I thinking buying these things? No wonder they were on clearance. I went inside to find the safe, plastic, low voltage, LED Christmas lights. X was over, doing some carpentry and I told him, “All that work for nothing.”

“You’re going to take them down?” he asked.

“Yeah, I can put these up instead.”

“No,” he said, which was surprising because he almost always finds a way to agree with other peoples’ choices. “Those lights are so beautiful.”

“I know, but what if more fall off and break on peoples’ heads? And I’ve got one hanging on the neighbor’s fence. She might not like that.”

“Their beauty is in their fragility,” he said. “This society is too litigious anyway. Let them be.”

As a compromise, I hung the plastic lights too, across another part of the yard. Now I need to put electrical tape over the empty socket of the fallen bulb and another one that burned out already. Though with the way the sky is thundering, I can quit worrying about anyone being outside when the daggers start falling. Instead, I can worry about whether anyone is going to show in the rain, whether I want anyone to show up in the rain, and how we could possibly feed them when we have no kitchen and Dave refuses to barbeque in the garage.